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
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and the world premiere of Mendelssohn’s unpublished Songs Without Words,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 . . . . . . .
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 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
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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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 rehearsals.
BD: Only two?
MD: Max two.
BD: When I’m
emperor, you’ll have three.
BD: Well, would
you want a third rehearsal?
MD: No, I don’t
BD: You don’t
need it? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interview with André
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
BD: Was that appropriate for the Schubert?
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
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
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.
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?
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 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.
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
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.
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?
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
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 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?
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
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?
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.
BD: A piano like
you would find here in Chicago, is there a lot of adjustment that would be
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
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
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.
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.”
BD: That “take”
had the best sweep, but you will give them that mistake as a bone to chew
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?
BD: But you always
strive for it?
BD: You never
MD: I get really
worried if a concert goes too well.
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 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
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?
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?
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.
===== ===== =====
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
===== ===== ===== =====
© 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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.