Diary of a Disquieted Pianist

Beth Levin

[September 2005.]

On June 6, I gave a piano recital in New York and two days later received a good review in the Times.

Jean Goetz, my friend and publicist over the years, did a brilliant job of alerting the press, colleagues and friends. I have her to thank for the success of the evening. She arrived early to bolster me backstage — so chic in all black, pearls, her long straight hair newly cut — and to welcome the audience and set up for the champagne reception. I was merely hoping the concert would merit a toast at that tender, pre-concert moment.

T, a friend of four years, was with me in the green room with words of support. He had listened to me play through the Op. 109 Beethoven, two Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, and Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes many times. His ears and empathy are invaluable.

A few days earlier B had come with me to try the pianos at the Yamaha Salon on Fifth Avenue, where the concert was to take place. They had graciously allowed me to choose from any piano in their stable and I was overwhelmed at the prospect. B steered me to one with an innate legato that suited my approach to the instrument.

The morning of the recital I heard from DDT, whose work, Ballad in Yellow, I would also perform. He told me he was coming — that, and knowing a critic would be present put my last hours at the piano under a brighter light. DDT also mentioned that there was a misprint in the score; an F-flat three measures before the end was actually an F-natural, an easy fix. But it made a huge difference to the ending, tonality versus atonality. And I had performed the work throughout Turkey a few months before, F-flat in place!

After the success of the concert and the good review, I was asked to play the same recital at the Dorothy Taubman Seminar at CAMI Hall. Originally I wasn’t to perform until 2006, but someone had backed out and I agreed. EG, a protégé of Dorothy’s, had broken off and begun her own festival at Princeton. I never knew the details of their rift, but I knew I wanted to support Dorothy. Recently I learned that Blanche Moise, the woman who for many years led the Bach Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont, had fallen ill. Her students held off presenting the festival out of respect. I think EG could have shown that same sense of honor due a master teacher.

As it turned out, I didn’t play well the evening of my recital at CAMI. I may simply have been emotionally exhausted. It’s never easy to analyze a bad night. I decided to take time off, let the pieces rest and tend to the things I had ignored in preparing for the recital program. And so in late June, after months of practice, performance, hope, dreams, disappointment and success, I completely let down.

I noticed who in the family needed new socks. I gave a luncheon. I saw my son graduate from high school. I made dinner, cleaned the house, took small trips, visited MOMA, and from my perch on the sofa, opened Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, and read some of Akhmatova’s poetry. Some days I barely moved. I was in the deeply blissful state of vacationing.

In late July a friend called to say he had just signed with an artists’ manager and suggested I mail in a compilation CD. Without giving it much thought, I did. A few days  later I got a call. The agent liked the recording but would I play for her live?

A little panicky, I was nevertheless eager. I asked for a week, feeling I needed that much time to lift myself out of torpor into a work state of mind. I was grateful for the chance to erase the taste of the most recent recital and do justice to the repertoire. I met CMS one morning in a studio at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. I played on an Estonia, not a beautiful piano but one that happened to be in tune in late summer.

I felt that the performance of the Symphonic Etudes had expanded since the last playing, the phrases a little riper, arrayed with greater conviction, the music’s emotions running high. I performed them all, no small journey for a hot August morning, or for that matter, any evening on stage.

I meant to do more this summer — learn the Chopin E-minor Concerto and set some of Octavio Paz and Akhmatova’s poems. I meant to clean out my daughter’s room while she was away at camp. I meant to visit Mrs. Taubman, my last teacher, now in her eighties and failing.

Nothing expected happened: not the F-natural, the glowing review, the unsettling second recital, and definitely, not a manager’s contract. In life and in art, one must prepare well — of course! — but never lose one’s capacity for surprise.


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