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premiere of Mendelssohn’s unpublished Songs Without Words, Op. 62 and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
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 . . . . . . .
From the huge repertoire of piano music, how do you decide which pieces
you’re going to play?
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
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?
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
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
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
BD: So you
draw a line not only through each composer’s life, but through the life
of music in general?
MD: I think
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?
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
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
BD: What is
MD: This is
for piano, winds, percussion and double bass.
BD: And the
brand new piece for you and your wife?
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?
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?
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
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.
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 this — with
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.
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.
there ever come a time when you’ll say, “No, I can’t recreate that
certainly hope not. I can’t imagine it now. I really do
feel that things are still improving.
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
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?
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
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.
MD: Never three
BD: Only two?
MD: Max two.
BD: When I’m
emperor, you’ll have three.
would you want a third rehearsal?
MD: No, I
don’t think so.
BD: You don’t
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?
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
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?
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.
BD: Was that
appropriate for the Schubert?
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?
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.
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
obviously found the greatness in this piece of music that other people
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
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?
Absolutely. I don’t think it would withstand the scrutiny of
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
medical 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.
interesting that it be something that you have no part in.
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.
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.
BD: How do
you divide your career between solo works, chamber pieces and concerti?
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 thing
— not 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
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?
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?
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?
Yes. That’s the only way to do it. Otherwise, I just know
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.]
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
BD: Make a
house call to tweak it a little bit.
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
advice do you have for young pianists coming along?
MD: There are
enormous hurdles along the way.
BD: Are they
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.”
BD: That “take”
had the best sweep, but you will give them that mistake as a bone to
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?
BD: But you
always strive for it?
BD: You never
MD: I get
really worried if a concert goes too well.
Yes. What am I going to do tomorrow morning?
BD: Bask in
the euphoria of the previous night?
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
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
BD: One other
balance question. Where’s the balance between the art and the
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?
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.
[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.
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,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
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
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.