Pianist  Misha  Dichter
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Misha Dichter was born in Shanghai in 1945, his Polish parents having fled Poland at the outbreak of World War II.  He moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of two and began piano lessons four years later. In addition to his keyboard studies with Aube Tzerko, which established the concentrated practice regimen and the intensive approach to musical analysis that he follows to this day, Mr. Dichter studied composition and analysis with Leonard Stein, a disciple of Arnold Schoenberg.  He subsequently came to New York to work with Mme. Lhevinne at The Juilliard School.

At the age of 20, while still enrolled at Juilliard, he entered the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where his choice of repertoire—music of Schubert and Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky—reflected the two major influences on his musical development.  Mr. Dichter’s stunning triumph at that competition launched his international career.  Almost immediately thereafter, he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at Tanglewood with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, a concert that was nationally broadcast live on NBC and subsequently recorded for RCA.  [See Bruce Duffie’s Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]  In 1968, Mr. Dichter made his debut with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, performing this same concerto.  Appearances with leading European ensembles, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and the principal London orchestras, as well as regular performances with major American orchestras, soon followed.

An active chamber musician, Mr. Dichter has collaborated with most of the world’s finest string players and frequently performs with Cipa Dichter in duo-piano recitals and concerto performances throughout North America and in Europe, as well as top summer music festivals in the U.S., such as Ravinia, Caramoor, Mostly Mozart, and the Aspen Music Festival.  They have brought to the concert stage many previously neglected works of the two-piano and piano-four-hand repertoires, including the world premiere of Robert Starer's Concerto for Two Pianos, the world premiere of the first movement of Shostakovich’s two-piano version of Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar), and the world premiere of Mendelssohn’s unpublished Songs Without Words, Op. 62 and 67 for piano four hands. Mr. Dichter’s master classes at music festivals and at such conservatories and universities as Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, Yale, Harvard, and the Amsterdam Conservatory, are widely attended.

An accomplished writer, Mr. Dichter has contributed many articles to leading publications, including The New York Times.  He has been seen frequently on national television and was the subject of an hour-long European television documentary.  Mr. Dichter is also an avid tennis player and jogger, as well as a talented sketch artist.  His drawings, which have served as a sort of visual diary, have been exhibited in New York art galleries.

Mr. Dichter lives with his wife, pianist Cipa Dichter, in New York City.  They have two grown sons. 

Misha Dichter and the Ravinia Festival seem to go together like [insert your own favorite inseparable pair here].  The summer of 2012 marked the 45th consecutive season that Dichter played there.  His repertoire, at the festival and elsewhere, includes concertos, chamber music and solo recitals.  Add to this his appearances downtown during the regular season, plus his many recordings, and we in the Windy City have enjoyed the best of this fine keyboard artist.

He and I got together in the summer of 1994.  I attended the performance where Dichter played the Grieg Piano Concerto in a Minor, and then went backstage during the second half of the concert for the conversation.  He was bright and happy with the performance, and was witty and spontaneous with his remarks. 

Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    From the huge repertoire of piano music, how do you decide which pieces you’re going to play?

Misha Dichter:    It has been sort of concerto musical chairs within the past couple of months.  In fact, I woke up the other morning around three and started thinking that I maybe should begin repeating some concerti one of these days.  It’s exhilarating!  There is no time for the cobwebs to gather.  I was looking back at the last two months and it’s been interesting
both Brahms concerti, a piece that I tried out for the first time that I’m actually playing with Chicago Symphony in October, the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Winds, this Grieg that I’ve just done, the three Beethoven concerti last week, Liszt Two, Mozart 467 and 466, and other little niceties like that.  It’s been quite interesting to keep the mind alert like that.

BD:    Not just in a couple of months but over your whole career, how do you decide which pieces you will spend time learning and getting into your fingers and into your mind?

dichter MD:    I consider everything wonderful and worthwhile, and it’s just a question of having enough time, which I just don’t.  We always stay with friends in Chicago, and his piano in the living room has various volumes of the Complete Whoever.  I start reading through things and I almost forget that I have a concert that night of things that I know very well, because I think of what I haven’t learned yet.  It just is astounding how much we have to learn.

BD:    Is it nice, though, to come back to a concerto that you’ve been playing for twenty years?

MD:    It’s wonderful, and always it’s the perspective.  In fact, that’s probably why it’s better to be jumping back and forth rather than playing the same piece.  I come back to a piece like the Grieg after having played, let’s say, the Grieg Violin Sonata or reading through smaller lyric pieces of Grieg.  Then I come back to the Piano Concerto or play other pieces of the mid- to late Nineteenth Century so as not to fall into any clichés.  Going back to the score, every time realizing that anybody who thinks, “Oh that?  Well, that’s a pops piece,” is a fool.

BD:    So you’re always learning and finding something new in each piece?

MD:    I hope so.  I found things in the Beethoven concerti last week just from having done a lot of late Beethoven sonatas recently.  Then it
s back to the good old five that we always do.  It always translates into being that much, much more sharply etched in performance, that much clearer in the form to me, and therefore, I hope, clearer to the listener. 

BD:    So you draw a line not only through each composer’s life, but through the life of music in general?

MD:    I think so.

BD:    Are we continuing that line today?

MD:    In terms of composers with whom I am familiar and learning, probably.  I’ve been accused over the years of neglecting my own time.  My wife, Cipa, and I are now learning a two-piano concerto that was written for us by Robert Starer.  We’re playing it and probably recording it next year.  [See my Interview with Robert Starer.]  It’s not that we’ve excluded anything.  It goes back to square one again and how much time is there?  The image that I always have is the old Ed Sullivan show with the circus performer twirling plates on sticks and adding a new plate and then going back to the first plate.  That’s the image I always have with piano repertoire.

BD:    When does it become too much?

MD:    Thank goodness, about fifteen years ago when I thought I had reached the limit, I made what was for myself a major breakthrough as far a memorization.  Instead of learning each piece as a new piece and trying to retain all of the various mathematical implications of memory in each one of them, I went to the next step of memorization.  I talked to a cousin of mine who is a scientist, and he said that what I’m doing is just some form of more advanced computer programming in my mind, to simplify matters so that a few rules apply to many pieces rather than vice versa.

BD:    Would it be a terrible sin for you to have not necessarily the full score in front of you, but maybe a cue sheet of important places or cues for each entrance?

MD:    I may do that with the Stravinsky that I’m doing here in Chicago later this year.  I just played it for the first time three weeks ago, and I’ll play three or four times before coming back in the fall.  I started learning it about six months ago.  When I was fifteen and it was a given that everything was memorized, I would have just done it, but now I realized that there was no particular point to memorizing it.  It’s an incredibly complicated score because of all of the polytonal things going on; not only polytonal but almost mixed-media.  The pianist is going along playing almost two-part inventions very often, while the winds are playing something more resembling Poulenc than anything else.  So the parts almost don’t seem to mesh, and if I were fifteen and that were one of four pieces that I knew, it would probably be memorized.  But I realized that as one more piece for season ’94-’95, I probably didn’t want to lose that much time in life to commit x-thousand more hours to memorizing it.  Besides, I felt perfectly comfortable with the score.  In fact, it felt more like chamber music because, indeed, we all had scores.

BD:    What is the instrumentation?

MD:    This is for piano, winds, percussion and double bass.

BD:    And the brand new piece for you and your wife?

dichter MD:    That’s the Starer Double Concerto.  Except for the Mozart double, everything I’ve done with my wife has been with music.  That, in effect, took the curse away from using music as far as I was concerned.  I realized once we started playing two-piano music and four-hand music about twenty-five years ago, almost all of this music was not memorized so there was no particular stigma attached to that.  It’s perfectly fine to look at the music like every other musician does.

BD:    Which is better or more comfortable for you
two-piano music or four-hand music?

MD:    Four-hand, by definition, is just that much more intimate.  With the great exception of the Grand Duo of Schubert, which is really a symphony, I think the concept of four-hand music implies either being a sibling of the person with whom you are playing, or being married to her.  I don’t think you can just get together with a colleague and say, “Let’s read through something.”  It can be fun for the players to spontaneously have this wonderful post-dinner merriment of Schubert, but not to really get it the way a string quartet does.  All of the attacks are just all or nothing, because you can’t ease into a down bow the way a quartet does.  It’s two people attacking two notes, five notes, whatever, and there’s nothing uglier in four-hand music than ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk of one person preceding the other.

BD:    So it’s a meeting of intellectual minds as well as hands?

MD:    Hands absolutely have to be rehearsed to split second perfection.  When that’s a given, then we start to be free and we start to argue about the musical matters.  It takes time to know what the other’s feeling and doing, and then it goes to realms far beyond what people just rehearse in a room.  It gets into marriage and much more complicated things.

BD:    How much of a marriage is it between the pianist and the conductor who is just a few feet away?

MD:    Given a situation like Ravinia, where the conductor and I met at five minutes to two for a two o’clock rehearsal of the Grieg
which is a thirty minute piece — it was over in thirty-six minutes.  So rather than a marriage, I would call it a one-afternoon stand.  [Both laugh]  We just coined a phrase!

BD:    But of course you knew the piece and he knew the piece, so hopefully your ideas would come together a little bit.

MD:    Yes.  One of the advantages of approaching the age of fifty is that I’m not patted on the back
as I was twenty-seven years ago when I started doing thiswith an attitude of “Well young man, here’s how we do it,” says the old maestro.  One assumes that if I’ve come back to a place, as I have to Ravinia now twenty-six years in a row, that I probably have some ideas about the Grieg if I’m here to play it.  So at the very least, the thirty minutes of the two-hour program should be at the discretion of the soloist to dictate pretty much what goes on.

BD:    Will there ever be a complete flip-flop when you become sixty or seventy and you pat the young, twenty-five year-old conductor on the head?

MD:    I can’t wait for that!  There’s a friend of mine who has a theory that a career has three stages.  The old conductor patting the young soloist; the Exxon stage — I don’t know if Exxon still sponsors conductors
but the Exxon conductor playing with the mid-age soloist who can draw ticket sales on his own because he’s been around a lot; and then the third stage where both soloist and conductor walk out with stooped backs, barely able to move onto the stage, trying to recreate one more time the Beethoven Fourth or something.

BD:    Will there ever come a time when you’ll say, “No, I can’t recreate that again”?

MD:    I certainly hope not.  I can’t imagine it now.  I really do feel that things are still improving.

BD:    What advice do you have for someone who wants to conduct a pianist?

MD:    Be a pianist!  When I’m playing, I really feel it if a conductor is a fiddler or a wind player or a percussionist, especially the more intricate the scores.  God forbid a non-pianist trying to conduct the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto.  A string player can’t begin to understand the complexities of the piano part.

BD:    Does he have to understand the complexities of the piano part, or must he just understand the shape of the music and the sweep of the line?

MD:    Actually, as you said that and as I finished saying it, I realized the best accompaniment I ever had in that piece was Eugene Ormandy, who was a string player.  So I stand corrected.  But for the most part, I do sense when a conductor is a pianist, and I think it’s a big plus.

BD:    I assume that each conductor is different for you?

MD:    Yes, in his way.

BD:    Not in the summer season but the regular season, you’ll have two or three rehearsals and then three or four performances of the piece.

dichter MD:    Never three rehearsals.

BD:    Only two?

MD:    Max two.

BD:    When I’m emperor, you’ll have three.

MD:    [Laughs]

BD:    Well, would you want a third rehearsal?

MD:    No, I don’t think so.

BD:    You don’t need it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interview with André Previn.]

MD:    I really do think there’s an enormous benefit to a second rehearsal.  I really do, and I’ve tried to balance that given how much time in one’s life should one devote to being on the road, and how much time is left for actually living.  Two rehearsals, by definition, mean one more day away from home.  If it’s a place that really means a great deal to me and they’re willing to have two rehearsals, there’s no question the performance will benefit and I’m there for two.  I don’t mean to slight the smaller places, but it would be kind of foolish to have less days devoted to what I want to do just because the second rehearsal might help somewhere along the line.

BD:    But a third rehearsal finds the law of diminishing returns coming in?

MD:    Totally diminishing returns, I think.

BD:    Does your performance improve if you have three or four concerts?  Does it improve from concert to concert?

MD:    It used to.  Now I’ve got a pattern that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It usually is not bad for the first one, not as good as the second night, let’s get it all together for the third which is the best of the three and is terrific.  That usually is what happens.

BD:    You can’t psych yourself into making the first one the best?

MD:    I always do.  I try to think,
“Now this is number two and you’re going to be let down.  Don’t get let down!  But it happens, it just does happen.  I used to simply play better each night.  Maybe it’s part of wisdom and maturity, but now I realize how many things can go wrong at the end of the first night of a piece.

BD:    Is it surprising how few things do go wrong?

MD:    It always amazes me; it really does.  What really astounds me is how impossible it is to go out and play a live concert with a piece I’ve just recorded.  I’ll hear the playbacks, and I’m not one who takes seventy-eight takes to get something down.  I know my recording process.  It’s one play-through to get the feel of the piece, and that’s sort of the basis of the recording itself.  Take one after that is starting to get careful, take two is getting extremely careful, and take three, out of total anger at myself for being so careful, is usually the record, which is,
“Let’s not be careful anymore.  It’s all down there somewhere so let’s really have a performance.  When that’s all put together, and I sit quietly smoking a cigar and listening to the results of all that, I think, “My God, I’m playing the Brahms Handel Variations (that I just recorded) live tomorrow, and look what we went through to get that one moment right at the juncture of one variation to the next variation.  It’s not possible in a live concert.”  I’ll talk myself into amazing complications because it’s really not supposed to be possible.  It’s just too hard.

BD:    Are there times, though, when it just happens?

MD:    Yes, and those are marvelous times.  One time it actually happened right here at Ravinia.  I remember I played a recital at the pavilion here that included the Liszt Sonata and the last Schubert, the B Flat posthumous sonata.  During the Schubert, I walked out, sat down, and from beginning to end, for forty minutes, I didn’t feel I was playing it.  I’ve never had that since and never before.

BD:    You had an out of body experience?  You were watching yourself?

MD:    Pretty much.  I was just listening to the music, kind of responding to it and feeling I was sort of dictating it, but not really.  When it was over, a conductor friend of mine, Larry Foster, came back, and said, “It’s as if you hadn’t been there.”  I said, “You felt that, too?”  He said, “Yes, you were just sort of levitating there, and the whole thing was one sort of dream from beginning to end.”  I said, “That’s incredible, because I really felt that also.”  I heard the tape, and usually it takes the bright morning light to dispel all that, but it’s one tape I want to keep.  It’s just there.

dichter BD:    Was that appropriate for the Schubert?

MD:    Absolutely.  For the last sonata, yes.  With the rather autumnal nature of the work, it rather suited it well.  It was totally unhurried, and just spoke from beginning to end.  It was over and there was just no physical effort involved whatever.

BD:    This, of course, comes back to the idea of using music or not.  When you don’t have the music, are you free to make it more interpretive?

MD:    It’s definitely easier, yes, and that’s the biggest argument for not using it.  Also, because of what I’ve said often about memorization techniques, having gone through the process that I need to memorize a piece I understand the structure much better than I would if I’m using the music.  In all chamber music by definition
piano trios, quartets, everything — one uses the music, and I know that I’m not as aware of the structure of the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet as I am of the B Flat Piano Concerto, because I never memorized the quartet.

BD:    Would there ever be a case where it would be worth taking the time to memorize that piece?

MD:    Sure, but again, how much time is there in life?  I’m so busy keeping the Mozart concerti memorized and the Beethoven sonatas memorized and learning new things.  In a perfect world, one should understand all pieces one plays to the final degree.

BD:    Is this what differentiates a great piece from a not-so-great piece
that you can always go back and find more in it?

MD:    Since I don’t think I play any pieces that are not great, maybe I should get a little defensive about it.  I answer in advance the snobs who would say, “Of course, one can apply this kind of introspective analyzation to the late Beethoven sonatas, but not to a piece like Rachmaninoff Two.”  I would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Second is one of the best put together pieces ever.  The entire thirty minutes are defined in the notes of the opening.  He knew exactly what he was doing; what is an ascending phrase!  What makes me crazy is program notes that say, “And then after a couple of minutes, the strings introduce a new theme, and then a third theme is introduced by the woodwinds.”  That’s not true.  It all builds like any great composition.

BD:    You’ve obviously found the greatness in this piece of music that other people have overlooked.

MD:    Rachmaninoff set it down that way, and I approach it the way I approach everything.  Rachmaninoff and Liszt, my God, Liszt!  People pooh-pooh him as the womanizing bon vivant of the Nineteenth Century, but you can analyze the B Minor Sonata as great as anything ever written.  It subjects itself very well to that kind of an analysis.

BD:    If you only play music that you find to be great, without mentioning any names, are there some pieces that you say, “That’s not a great piece of music.  I’m not going to give any time to it?”

MD:    A lot of French music, I must say, and I’ve gone through this far in my life assuming that it’s my problem.  I’ll go to the extent of listening to and trying to instruct performances of French music in master classes, but I really believe that if somebody sits down and plays Ravel’s Gaspar technically perfectly, doing dynamically everything that is indicated by Ravel, it’s valid as a performance.  But I don’t think that if I started learning the piece that I would grow with it over the years.  Maybe that’s my own prejudice against that music.  Whatever French music I have played, such as two pianos with my wife, strikes me as colorful and charming but shallow, and it’s my problem, probably.

BD:    So you’ll let others find the greatness in that, and you’ll just move on?

MD:    Absolutely.  I don’t think it would withstand the scrutiny of structural analysis.

BD:    Let me hit you with a big question then.  What is the purpose of music?

MD:    I know that for me it’s absolutely central to my life.  I’m not a terribly religious person in any formal way, but I know that my reaction to the reverberations within me could only be defined as something religious.  I know at times of terrible stress, such as med
ical problems, if one is lying etherized on a table about to succumb to something... I know in my case the one time that I was slowly drifting off in a hospital bed before some minor surgery, the Beethoven Ninth Symphony was ringing loudly in my head.

BD:    It’s interesting that it be something that you have no part in.

MD:    Yes because I don’t want to get involved in the technicalities of playing the piece.  So it obviously holds me together.

BD:    Do you then try to make it so that it holds the audience together, at least for those thirty minutes?

MD:    If it’s holding me together and anybody has ears and the willingness to listen, absolutely.  There’s no doubt that it’ll hold everybody together because the purpose is clear and the purpose is honest.

BD:    Honesty.  That’s a word I’ve never heard before in an interview like this.  Honesty.  I’m glad you feel that the purpose of the music is an honest one.

MD:    Absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your career between solo works, chamber pieces and concerti?

dichter MD:    It’s interesting.  I’m an old-timer this way.  I started playing professionally in the mid-sixties, when, in retrospect, recitals were probably at the tail end of a golden era.  Presenters around the country were slowly closing up shop on recital series, and I saw the very end of that.  I was used to a season of twenty or twenty-five recitals, starting in September with a brand new program that I had just learned that summer.  I would be going around and by October it began to feel that it’s shaping up, and by January I was ready for a New York appearance.  This was really working it in the old fashioned way, like trying it out as a Broadway show somewhere and honing it to perfection, if that’s possible.  In the waning years of that, I’d been complaining to my management that those days are over, and that kind of work is not possible on that level — the rethinking every day, playing the same program day after day, thinking about it again and going to the next city.  I haven’t originated this because I read Eugene Istomin having done this several years ago
traveling with a couple of pianos around the country doing one-night stands of concerts and recitals, and every concert being about two hundred miles from the next one.  He had a truck, a sort of U-Haul thing with a Steinway concert grand or two in the back.  A piano of your choice is the most important thingnot necessarily Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Boston and Philadelphia and New York, but a lot of places in between.  I’m going to try that this year for the first time, giving about twenty-five recitals just that way in between the usual recitals and orchestral concerts in the larger cities because I want to get back to that.  I don’t want to lose touch with that.  Most of my colleagues complain that a normal recital season now may have five to ten recitals, and that’s just not the way to get a program going.

BD:    So you want to do more recitals and fewer concertos?

MD:    No, I just want to increase the recitals and that’s what we’re doing this coming year.  I’ll see if it works.

BD:    Will you take your piano with you?

MD:    Yes.

BD:    Most of the time when you’ve been on the road you can’t take your piano with you.  How long does it take before you make the piano that you’re assigned your own?

MD:    It doesn’t happen, it just doesn’t happen.  I’m aware that I’m giving eighty per cent that night or seventy-five or ninety or fifty.  I took no chances when I went back to Russia in March for the first time in twenty years.  I wanted to do that right because it was a special place to me.  It’s where my career began.  We brought one of the great tuners of the world from the Steinway basement, a guy named Ron Connors, who’s just a genius.  He flew with us, and we arrived at ten at night after twenty-four hours door to door.  He went to the hall with me.  I tried four Hamburg Steinways, picked the least offensive one, and he worked through the night.  The next morning I was playing on one of the great pianos of the world.

BD:    So he knew what you wanted?

MD:    Yes.  That’s the only way to do it.  Otherwise, I just know I’m compromising.

BD:    Rather than traveling with your own piano, shouldn’t you just travel with your great tuner?  [See my Interview with Franz Mohr, Chief Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, 1968-92.]

MD:    Along this tour, if I found that it’s not what Ron set it up at the beginning, he’d meet me somewhere and we’d just give it a little quick starter.

BD:    Make a house call to tweak it a little bit.

MD:    Yeah.

BD:    A piano like you would find here in Chicago, is there a lot of adjustment that would be needed?

MD:    This is a very special place.  This is a piano town.  I know from all the years of coming here that it’s going to be fine because this is one of the few places in the country outside of New York that knows its pianos.

BD:    What advice do you have for young pianists coming along?

MD:    There are enormous hurdles along the way.

BD:    Are they insurmountable?

MD:    Almost.  We discouraged our two now-grown sons from seriously thinking about music because we knew that if they tore down all the barriers and said, “This is all we want to do,” then they would be musicians.  You have to have that kind of attitude, that nothing in the world means as much as doing that.  Then they’re not insurmountable.  They’re crazy, but they’re not insurmountable.

BD:    Are there too many pianists trying to get too few performance dates?

MD:    Pianists cannot fill the ranks of string quartets or orchestras or various other organizations.  It’s just pianists by themselves.  It’s all or nothing, or teaching.  So it’s not that there are more than violinists, it’s just the number of possibilities.  How many recital possibilities are there, or chances to play the Beethoven Fourth in a given city?  So yes, the odds are enormously against them.

dichter BD:    Yet, because of the solo repertoire, you can choose so many different things and be in complete control of what you play.

MD:    Yes, if you can find a venue to play it.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you change your technique for the size of the hall — if you’re playing in a very small intimate hall or a dry hall, as opposed to a big hall or even outdoors as you are doing here?

MD:    Very much so, yes.  For Ravinia, I just simply feel that I likely have to phone it in because it’s all amplified.  I don’t feel I have to fight.  Discussions in wintertime, indoors with a conductor, if I really feel I’m being swamped by the brass, never take place here.  It’s not necessary.  It’s like a recording.  I see the two microphones by the piano and I know that I’m being well represented.  There is the temptation to play everything sort of mezzo forte, but I do resist that.

BD:    Does it make it that you can be even a little more subtle in an outdoor concert because it’s miked?

MD:    In some ways, yes, like a recording.

BD:    Do you ever want it to be a recording?

MD:    Probably not.  We get so used to the splicing and listening to so many recordings over the years.  We’re hearing the final result of so many splices that we get rather used to, as the BBC used to say, “Music without blemishes.”  When I used to do BBC recordings, they would say, [with British accent] “Now, could we go back to that?  There was a bit of a blemish there.”  We don’t want too many blemishes for the live audience.

BD:    They don’t want too many... do they want even one?

MD:    In every recording with producers I worked with, with whom I’ve gotten close and we know each other well and we understand each other
s sensibilities, there may be one dubious note somewhere in the middle where the left hand may be a little bit of a fudge.  After an hour of music on the record, when it’s all put together we all decide, Let’s give them that note to complain about, that it wasn’t perfect.  [Both laugh]

BD:    That
take had the best sweep, but you will give them that mistake as a bone to chew on?

MD:    It’s in there, but let’s not worry about it because it has the sweep.  If there’s one note that’s not right, let it be that one.

BD:    Is there such a thing as musical perfection?

MD:    Musical perfection?  No.

BD:    But you always strive for it?

MD:    Yes.

BD:    You never get it?

MD:    I get really worried if a concert goes too well.

BD:    Really???

MD:    Yes.  What am I going to do tomorrow morning?

BD:    Bask in the euphoria of the previous night?

MD:    No.  It lasts until noon, then it’s over.

~~~ Note: During most of my in-person interviews, I asked my guests to do a station break for us.  At this point we stopped momentarily for him to read the prepared card...  MD:  Hello.  This is Misha Dichter and you’re listening to Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago.  Can I try it again?  BD:  [With a gentle nudge]  Sure, to remove the blemish?  MD:  Yes.  [Laughs and goes back to British accent]  Thank you.  [Station break done brilliantly] ~~~

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

MD:    I think so.  [Knocks wood]  Can we knock on wood?  My health is great, and I really think things are improving pianistically.  They allow me to be freer musically, less and less hindered by technical restraints.  When I used to read reviews of mine twenty-five years ago, flattering reviews said, “This young man can do almost anything he wants technically.”  I used to laugh, thinking, ‘Boy, you don’t know how much I can’t do!’  Now it’s come a long way.  There almost is that feeling that if I can’t play it, it’s not playable because I’ll try every route to solve technical details.  I love to solve technical problems.  I’m a tinkerer, and if I have to re-finger something and play with the fifth finger of the left hand on the highest note on the keyboard and go back to the bass, if it works then I’ll do it.

BD:    Where is the balance, then, between this technical close-to-perfection and the inspiration of the moment?

MD:    I don’t think you can have one without the other.  I think of people who may walk out on stage without feeling technically on top of things, being nervous about that, and I think it’s wonderful to eliminate almost totally the feeling that technically there might be a problem.  It’s just totally liberating to have worked on so many problems that you go out there and just play.  That’s always my goal.

BD:    One other balance question.  Where’s the balance between the art and the entertainment?

MD:    Entertainment is a word that really scares me, and I’m afraid that we’re living in a time where we’re competing more and more with the obvious.  I probably don’t know a lot of what’s going on out there, but my idea has always been a Russian school of playing that was taught to me by Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard.  Nobody should know how hard it is.  Just sit there and, as she put it, “Make it look so easy that they go home and try it themselves, and then realize how hard it is.”  So I do nothing — I don’t play to the gallery.  In fact, when I see videos of myself I get quite disappointed because I’ll hear a tape and I’ll think that’s awfully close to what I wanted to do.  Then I’ll see videos and I’ll think, ‘Hmmm, looks awfully cold, doesn’t it?’ because I don’t do anything for effect.  I don’t throw my hand up.  I don’t look to the ceiling for inspiration.  It’s all in my gut.

BD:    So then it becomes all in the sound?

MD:    I hope so.

BD:    So then maybe the best thing is to listen to you on the radio?

MD:    I think so.  I really do.

BD:    One last question.  Is playing piano fun?

MD:    Yes.  It’s wonderful because the feeling of doing really difficult things goes back to problem-solving.  I’m not touching enough on the spiritual or the musical, and suddenly I am realizing musically how something makes sense and speaks and actually gives a goose-bump.  That’s the highest praise.  It’s something that’s almost impossible to speak about, but the actual fun is in playing a passage that in December was making me crazy with its difficulty, and now, six months later, is fun.

BD:    I wish you lots of continued success in figuring out those difficult passages.

MD:    [Laughs]  Thank you.

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© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the office suite, backstage at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL on July 22, 1994.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that year and in the following year, and again in 2000.  The transcription was posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.