Piano Diary 1.

[Beth Levin is a busily performing pianist, mother of two, and wife of Gary Chapman, whom I’ve called on countless times to undo the confusion my computer visits upon me. I’d received over time amusing emails from Beth which impelled me to suggest these ongoing diary entires in the hope that the reader might find the day-to-day pleasures and pains of a professional musician of interest. Ed.]

Beth Levin

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

August 20, 2000

I sat down and practiced the program this morning and found it still breathing after a weekend of neglect. Facing the five movements of Schumann, the famous Fantasy and all the rest of it sometimes seems too much for me. I escape into baking a lasagne, feeding the bird, even doing laundry. A stack of white socks can seem very comforting in the face of a stack of Schumann’s devilish harmonic progressions.

I found a dress crumpled up in a ball in one of my drawers and realized it would be perfect for Merkin Hall in November. It’s the softest maroon velvet with interesting sleeves and a vee neck. (of course I’ll need to wear a girdle of steel to achieve a respectable result …. ) The last time I wore it was at the gallery concert in Groton where Paul Matisse (grandson of Henri) lives and works. A smashing night was had by all because of the perfect blending of environment and music. Paul’s sculptures are like the steely contraptions you might see in Chaplin’s Modern Times. Everything in the house was designed for grace and utmost utility down to the funny curved pipe in the bathroom that skewered cakes of soap. Before I went on stage I waited in a warm, comfortable room with a sense of controlled clutter. Imagine my awe at realizing that the clutter consisted of genuine works of Picasso, Matisse and Giacometti nonchalantly strewn about. My breath got caught in my throat for a moment.

The page turner that evening told me I had the most interesting voice at the piano. Encouraging remarks are the hallmark of a great page turner who goes far beyond his or her duty by providing emotional support. The best I ever had was a psychiatrist who turned for me through the treacherous Ravel trio and somehow made me feel completely safe. A turner can also be one’s bane. One I had during the Brahms F minor Piano Quintet at First and Second Church in Boston never knew where the movement ended. At the end of the great work he kept turning blank pages thereby rendering what would have been a standing ovation into a tenuous trickle of applause from a confused audience who didn’t know whether the music was over or not!

Christine Moore came over and we read through Barber’s Knoxville, a set of quirky songs by Satie and, stepping back in time, some Schubert lieder. Christine belongs on the stage at the Met but in my humble apartment has the effect of scaring the bird and sending my son off to do his homework. She’s a warm soprano and an even warmer human being. We swapped stories about conductors and competitions and decided that the only good competition is one you win. Even second place is a cause for a good month’s worth of depression.

August 23, 2000

I got a card from Judy Shure on Nantucket today. Judy is the widow of Leonard Shure, one of our greatest musicians of the twentieth century and, I’m proud to say, my teacher. When I played there in June she was suffering from hives and high blood pressure, heightened by the recent loss of her emotionally ill daughter. But she insisted I stay there for the weekend of the recital.

Practicing on Leonard’s Steinway, staying in the house and performing on the same stage he had performed on many years ago brought a certain psychological imagery to bear that was hard to escape. It is one thing to let down an audience, but if I didn’t play well I would have let down ghosts and expectations from the past and disappointed the memory of the master. When Judy gave me one of his old handkerchiefs to use on stage I thought it would either give me courage or sink me for sure. Mr Shure used to say “courage” or “be a man” before a recital but Mrs Shure whispered something in my ear before I went on that I cannot repeat here …. [Cannot repeat? Rats! Ed.]

That afternoon in the big white church in the center of Nantucket filled with rapt music lovers, the Debussy in particular shimmered, soared and provoked. At the reception a French woman raved about its color and sweep and told me how happy I must be to be able to play like that. I smiled but inwardly thought, “Oy, if you only knew.” Hers’s my own assessment of the the day’s concert:

Gardens in the Rain may have escalated at times to the proportion of a thunderstorm, Cascades of Louis Karchin was alive and hopefully evoking waterfalls (I suddenly realize how damp this program is), the Chopin mazurkas were brimming with character but may have gone overboard with the rubato. Of the five movements of the Schumann F# minor Sonate, three were on the mark and two needed more variation of sound. The F minor Fantasy of Chopin never lacked drama but needed more time to truly build the climaxes.

Dear Reader, excuse me, time to go back to the drawing board ….

August 24, 2000

Cathy (with a “C”) Fuller called today from WGBH to discuss repertoire for my appearance on Classical Performances the morning of October 13th. I’ll be playing and during the intervals chatting with Richard Knisely, the host. Morning and performing seem like incongruous concepts. How can one be expected to sit down and perform a transcendent Schumann sonata at 10:30 A.M? It’s like waking up and watching Bergman’s Persona before coffee.

I daydream about the perfect interview. Richard Knisely asks me fascinating questions:

“How do you get inside a piece of music?” “What fascinates you about the works you’re playing?” “How do other arts affect you as a musician and what do you take from them?”

Slowly Richard Knisely transforms into Charlie Rose and I’m sitting at the large round table, smoking and discussing Music.

Charlie: “So, Beth, what drives you to be a pianist?”

Me: “Well, Charlie (smoke billows about my face), when I was a little girl we had an old upright in the basement with a booming sound. I went down there, started to play, and immediately it became my haven, my own place, my voice really. I guess I have created that for myself ever since.”

Charlie: “When you studied with Rudolf Serkin how did you feel”

Me: ” I was one of only three students because he was concertizing heavily at that time. Hilla came from India, Paul from Canada and I hailed from Philadelphia. I always felt as if I were going in to the studio to play for God. In reality he was more of a kind but Germanic father figure with a twinkle in his eye. And I didn’t understand the genius of Serkin because I hadn’t studied his recordings or realized the scope of his artistry. I simply knew him as my teacher and one whom I knew expected far too much from me.

Charlie: “Why do you say that?”

Me: “I had recently performed concerti with the Philadelphia Orchestra, first as a child of twelve and later at the age of sixteen. I suppose that qualified me as a child prodigy and therefore the kind of student whom Serkin would accept. I even emitted polish and musical self assurance. But underneath I was far from having an understanding of music and probably needed more of a nuts and bolts teacher.”

Charlie: “What do you think you did learn as his student?”

Me: ” Well (I remove a bit of tobacco from my tongue), I took away an approach and an attitude about art — that it’s sacred, that it’s a living thing to be cherished and nurtured. That when I sit down to play much is at stake.

Suddenly my segment is preempted. Barishnikov’s plane has landed and he can appear after all. I am whisked out of the studio. The smoke still billows.

I had a short but friendly e mail from J.M. this morning. When I left the Gramercy Trio in November I assumed then that he hated me and would never want to contact me again. Thus, seeing his name in the list of incoming messages gave me a bit of a jolt.

I was honestly shocked at myself when I quit Gramercy. Going in I was sure it would be a lifelong association, a melding of three musicians, a marriage of souls for the purpose of creating a fine unity. We even named our group Gramercy as in “giving great thanks” for our good fortune in finding each other. Unfortunately such happy longevity was not to be our destiny.

During our work together I admired J’s maniacal devotion to the search for always a better sound, a better way to play a passage or a better idea in the music. But I hated his insensitivity to people and his immaturity. He would think nothing of taking time in rehearsal to play his particular line of solo music over and over asking S. and me which way we liked it best. I felt that when I rehearsed I was working for the whole and would never dream of focusing merely on a solo section. S. had a brilliant, uncanny grasp of a musical score but lacked a truly beautiful sound. It was as if she were afraid to be lush in tone. After a while my deep respect for her intellect turned into a yearning for someone more emotional in approach. That said all of it might have worked out if I had been having a bit more fun.

My eight year association prior to Gramercy had been with Trio Borealis, founded by myself and two first rate musicians from Iceland. Perhaps I was spoiled by R. and E., by their largesse of spirit, their pursuit of perfection but never at the expense of humanity, grace and cheer. R., E. and I gallivanted all over Iceland, played summers in Cervera, Spain and did some performing in the States. I learned how to down five Bloody Marys with the guys after concerts, rehearse endless hours, travel by sea and air, share a stage and almost everything else and never stop looking forward to the next goal, the next concert, the next musical exchange. With Gramercy I must admit I started looking for an escape clause after about a year into the venture.

By leaving the trio I have left myself out on a limb. For the first time in my life I’m literally flying solo and giving ten recitals on the East Coast. There are no trio partners around for moral support, no ideas to bounce off of someone else, no cello lines to follow or dynamics to match, play under or over. I must create my own world of sound, give my own complete interpretation of the music, and create my own confidence. Can I do it?

August 27, 2000

Middle of the night. Can’t sleep. Was it the wine at dinner? Otherwise the meal was my favorite of broiled fish, new potatoes (not slathered in butter but I can dream), asparagus and a little bread, a little wine. Was it too little wine?

I worked pretty well on the recital program last morning. The Schumann Sonate has come a long way since I first opened it in the Fall, sight-read through and fell in love. Some pieces have one hooked from the opening bars and the Schumann F# minor is one of them. Of course one “pays” later upon realizing the symphonic proportions of the work and spending hours wading through some of his madder ideas.

Sometimes the music comes so alive to me that I can almost see Schumann standing in the room. Perhaps he’s my personal Harvey at the moment at least as I work intensely. Later he’ll move on to haunt another pianist. The sonate is an extreme blend of the childlike with the tragic. One moment he’s all whimsical playfulness and the next he’s grabbing your soul and delivering it up to you on a platter. The Aria movement is so close to heaven that if the audience doesn’t weep I will have failed on my part. The wild third movement reminds me of the tea party in Wonderland-and I’m Alice.

I’m pretty comfortable with these extremes at the piano-more so than in life. Give me a nice, dull, easygoing day in which I can soar and ride the roller coaster that is Schumann’s art. Richard Dyer said I “offered myself to Schumann ( in the Davidsbundlertanze) and to the audience in the most daring and open way.” I wonder what he might say this time out?

September 25th

The day after giving a recital, perhaps the next two days and sometimes as much as a week after can be an eerie time and different for every artist.

Saturday night I gave a recital in Nyack, New York in a small but beautiful church for a small but thoughtful group of listeners. People who come out on a rainy Saturday evening who might otherwise be snug in their homes are in my book worthy music lovers.

The piano must be mentioned. It was a Wisstar, a name I had never heard before and seemed to be concocted from different parts, some Steinway, some Mason and Hamlin and some Edsel: a real whore of a piano! I ran through a good portion of the program about an hour before the concert hoping to make friends with the beast and sense a way to make music on it. One must never waste energy cursing a poor instrument — it is the given a performer must accept and it need not get in the way of one’s vision for presenting the music. Nevertheless, upon first touching the Wisstar I must admit my heart sank.

I walked out from behind two large red doors at 8:15 and felt that first moment of high energy, joy, expectation and thrill. It is a special moment that I think most performers love. I put my lucky handkerchief inside the piano, took a few moments to breathe and look around the hall and launched into the Introduction to the Schumann F# minor Sonata. I was feeling very confident and free to express the opening fully when in a sudden crash of sound there were heard firecrackers being set off immediately outside the church. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the sound of the fireworks was mind numbing. That together with the pelting of the rain competed royally with Schumann and my efforts to portray it. (Charles Ives might have loved the spontaneous combustion of sound and thought it all a lovely joke!) After some inner decision making I decided to persevere and keep playing. I succeeded through three movements when just as suddenly as it had begun the fireworks ceased. Oddly enough the new silence disconcerted me more than the din had. Now there was only Schumann and nothing else. I quickly adapted to the new set of acoustic circumstances and continued on to the climax of the piece to wonderful applause. I bowed, smiled ironically and felt that a certain bond had just been forged between me and my audience. As I left the hall I heard the word “heroic.”

The rest of the program unfolded well with even a few glorious moments and no further natural disasters. My husband Gary in a moment of Olympic humor said that I had stuck my landings and made only a tiny splash into the water. People were openly moved and asked me where they could buy my recordings. I only have two to date, one of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and one of the Hummel Sextet with Music From Marlboro. There is another in the can of the Arensky D minor Trio but I didn’t mention my recordings that evening. My personal goal of performing the program to a degree of excellence, not losing my nerve and moving the listeners had been met. It was time to celebrate.

Gary and I walked to a local pub and ordered steak and wine. I hadn’t eaten dinner and was truly ravenous. The food and drink tasted delicious to me and being able to rehash the events of the evening was pleasurable.

Today is Monday and the recital has truly vanished into a dream. A good one does. A bad one usually goes on for days in one’s mind torturing and eating away at any sense of inner peace. I am washed out and find myself listening to great music (Mahler’s 5th at the moment) and staring off into space. Preparing dinner may be the height of what I achieve today

Ahead is a recital at Merkin Hall, NYC in November, a far cry in many respects from a church in Nyack. But the experience of giving the recital Saturday night will be woven into the performance I give then. One thing is for certain: I will truly appreciate the Steinway piano on stage that evening!