Gary Graffman: I did not allow Lang Lang to enter competitions

The former head of Curtis talks to Zsolt Bognar about how to run a music school that nurtures individual talent.

Gary, 90 this year, understands talent from the inside. He was a formidable pianist until a hand injury put paid to his concert career. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the emergence of the young Lang Lang.

‘I was totally against competitions,’ he says. ‘I didn’t allow Lang Lang or Yuja Wang to compete.’

 

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  • Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention. The Lang Lang reference in this blog post may trigger more comments, but Graffman has far more interesting things to talk about, and he certainly does. As always, Bognar asks very incisive questions.

    Graffman is one of the last surviving members of a formidable generation of US pianists born in the 20s and 30s. Jerome Lowenthal and Leon Fleisher are still in the spotlight. At 98, Abbey Simon is probably the oldest of them all. Others have died or retired: Kappel, Katchen, Janis… I am very curious about the reasons behind this golden age of American pianism. Any insights?

    • Almost all of them were born in the USA of immigrant parents. Most families were Jewish of either Russian or German origin and refugees from the Russian revolution(s) and/or the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Their parents were generally people of culture who encouraged their children to work hard. Gary talks about this phenomenon in his autobiography “I Really should be practicing” where he (through the ghost-writing of his wife Naomi) talks about his development as a piano soloist and life on the road from 1950-1980). The list of teachers included Vengerova (Graffman, Bernstein, etc) and Schnabel (Fleisher, Frank among others). There were concert series in almost every state which sponsored recitals for these young artists immediately after WW II. It was a special era which we are unlikely to experience again. This interview is just a hint of the wealth of piano tradition that Gary Graffman transmits to his students.

    • It may, of course, just be a statistical cluster, akin to shark attacks. You ask a good question and I must give it thought. The circa 40 years starting in about 1875 that saw the birth of Hoffman, Rubinstein, Serkin, Kempff, Solomon, Cherkassky, the two Fischers, Arrau, Horowitz, Gieseking, Llevinne, Backhaus, Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Curzon…is truly remarkable. With regard to those, I am inclined to think that the vast difference in education and training in that period may explain it. And the way musicians have been trained since explain why that phenomenon has not recurred. We have had marvels such as Larrocha, Pires, Sokolov, Zimerman, et al., but rather scattered, and what I note about those is their very distinctive casts of mind, distinctive in the sense that those of the pianists listed above were. Unless one thinks that rather strange presentation and either vacuous or perverse performances is in the same category, and I do not, almost all the youngest generation is a very different kettle of fish.

      • We should perhaps also mention the influence of Olga Samaroff who, while having some Russian heritage was born Lucie Hickenlooper in Texas yet went on to become a great virtuoso pianist (for example played with Tchaikovsky First Concerto under Mahler’s baton) and made many recordings in the 78 era. Married to Stokowski for a while, she injured her arm (unrelated to the marriage) and became a critic and great pedagogue in NY teaching among others William Kappell, Raymond Lewenthal, Rosalind Tureck and Alexis Weissenberg.

  • Years ago I read his book, “I really should be Practicing” and remember the incident when arriving in Japan for a recital he asked about a practice piano and things got really quiet. Someone then ventured, “are you not ready to play the recital?” I hope this book is still around. A great read!

  • What is perhaps most salient here is the fact that they studied with great pedagogues who were clearly linked to European traditions and cultural milieu. Those two factors are sadly removed now. Graffman did not practice what he preached, as director of the Curtis, hiring “star performers” to teach rather than great pedagogues. And he encouraged the influx of ignorant Asian students with no cultural background. He went with the times instead of standing timeless. And this downward trend to music as business rather than art has only worsened. The baby boomers were the last generation to value art for art’s sake. Now, pedagogues are frowned upon, except as preparatory teachers. And the competitions turn out playing machines, one after another.
    In fact, my teacher, who knew Graffman well, said of him, as a pianist, he’s a very good businessman. And he played that way, very well, very good product. I studied chamber music with him. A congenial presence, with very little to say. His wife, on the other hand, is something of a genius.

    • It makes me laugh when I see an American complain about “ignorant Asian students with no cultural background”. Aren’t you the wannabe conductor in the other thread who were refused entry because you can’t play the piano?

    • While I’m not a fan of what Lang Lang has become, he did do much promising work in his youth. To label all Asians as “Having no cultural background” is really uncalled for. They bring a wealth of cultural backgrounds, it just doesn’t happen to be in the Western European tradition. Times and cultural power structures are changing, and as a result, so are our responses to the music of the past.

      As you rightly pointed out, however, much of the fault musically speaking lies with the teachers at top conservatories who are unable, or unwilling to share the Western tradition with their students. Please stop blaming an entire race of people for being something they are not.

      Your point, however, about the decline and disdain for pedagogy is spot on. This is where the problem actually lies, and not with the current cohort of students.

      • The phrase “no cultural background” is offensive. But it hints at a larger truth: the most successful conservatory entrants today have started their work on the piano almost from birth, and have practiced madly ever since, working their way through ever more rigorous competitions. What they essentially have is “eventless youths” that instead focus on carefully curated, gradated challenges. Compare that to what, say, Nyiregyhazi went through, not to mention the pianists whose youths were interrupted by the second world war.

        Sitting in a practice room day after day provides a fantastic facility with no broad human experience to call upon.Every now and then a Yuja Wang makes it through, with that special spark. But so many of the others are “merely excellent”.

    • Culture is not just background. Culture is inseparable from enculturation. It is not something you are born with: if it is, it will not be “culture” in the first place. Assuming all those Asian students are as “ignorant” as YOYO MAMA says, their attendance of Curtis is part of enculturation process, and that’s part of Curtis’s functions. Culture is much more than antiques and heirlooms for you to put away in your family drawers.

  • As someone who happens to know this industry from both the performing and management sides, Graffman’s statement confirms:

    1. You must study with a teacher who is influential and have great connections to the managers in order to be signed.
    2. Managers sign artists based on the recommendations of artists they know and value, if it’s not from an engagement deals with competitions.
    3. Stop wasting your time to send promoting materials and emails on your own to the agencies – no one will open or listen to them. The managers are NOT musicians, they do not have the “musical intelligence or ears”.

    It is depressing, but it is the truth. I learned it by watching these people everyday.

  • Interesting insight: how he fears his focal dystonia might have come from playing octaves with the thumb and third finger rather than 1-4 or 1-5.

  • In my view, the greatest American classical musicians were those who turned away from Europe. Ives, Copland, Bernstein. Even the less facile Gershwin.

    But more to the point, part of the moral disease of Curtis, and why it was especially notable for sexual abuse, was it’s preoccupation with a kind of affected and aloof psuedo-European elitism. We think of the tea parties of Rittenhouse Square’s blue-haired ladies and the Mainline fox hunters. A kind of moral collapse evolves under these circumstances. A loss of social reality that leads to a loss of social engagement, and finally a loss of social responsibility.

    Americans are conditioned not to see these social relationships. The contrived aloofness of Curtis became increasingly pronounced in the midst of a city that had been collapsing for decades and developing some of the most massive and dehumanizing ghettos in the world. Even today, Philadelphia has more people living in deep poverty (less than $10,000 per year for a family of three) than any other city in the country — about 180,000 people including 60,000 children. In 2001, a Mayor’s report noted that Philadelphia had 14,000, abandoned buildings in a dangerous state of collapse, 31,000 trash-strewn vacant lots, 60,000 abandoned autos, and had lost 75,000 citizens in recent years. The Rittenhouse Square mindset simply built more barriers of white supremacy around itself–a kind of internalized white flight.

    This moral erosion and the denial that inevitably accompanies it, became part of the mindset for an elite school with a consistent pattern of faculty members sexually exploiting students and even raping minors. It followed in the romanticized concepts of genius that haunt classical music. The “geniuses” are special people. They are to be allowed special indulgences–even rape. And even if frantic telephone calls and meetings are needed to keep everything smoothed over. In spirit of classical music’s 19th century cultural nationalism, we offer these indulgences to the genius seed of white, cultural supremacy.

    And when questioned about these abuses, our memories, of course, suddenly grow very short.

    And little has changed. America being America, even in this discussion, and even with the behavior that has been exposed, we turn our eyes away and discuss with slight tones of white supremacy all that fine pedagogy imported from Europe, and the necessary enculturation of Asians.

  • Just as an aside, it is interesting watching Graffman explain his hand injury. In his fascinating biography “A Walk on the Wild Side”, the great virtuoso Earl Wild dismissed this and put forward the suggestion that the fault with both Graffman and Fleischer was of technique.

    “I have observed that pianists and teachers who themselves have had problems with the fourth finger are usually the ones who pass them on to their pupils. . . I watched both Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman many years ago, and I could see that each of them was misusing his hands, mainly using the thumb and fourth finger instead of the thumb and fifth finger when playing heavy octaves. . .

    “The stress that builds up in the hand from problems such as the incorrect use of the fourth finger becomes progressively worse, causing all kinds of further problems.”

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