Pianist  Gilbert  Kalish
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As head of the performance faculty, Gilbert Kalish had done much to create the uniquely supportive and stimulating environment of Stony Brook's music department. Through his activites as performer and educator, he has become a major figure in American music making. A native New Yorker, Mr. Kalish studied with Leonard Shure, Julius Hereford and Isabelle Vengerova. He is a frequent guest artist with many of the world's most distinguished chamber ensembles. He was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, a pioneering new music group that flourished during the 1960's and '70's. He is noted for his partnerships with other artists, including cellists Timothy Eddy and Joel Krosnick, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and, perhaps most memorably, his thirty-year collaboration with mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. In addition to teaching at Stony Brook, he has also served on the faculties of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Banff Centre and the Steans Institute at Ravinia. Mr. Kalish's discography of some 100 recordings encompasses classical repertory, 20th-century masterworks and new compositions. In 1995 the University of Chicago presented him with the Paul Fromm Award for distinguished service to the music of our time.

--  Links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

I was privileged to meet Gilbert Kalish in 1999 at the Ravinia Festival just North of Chicago, where the Chicago Symphony plays each summer.  The programs also include chamber groups and solo recitals, as well as the Steans Institute for younger professionals.  Kalish was there to give master classes and other lessons to budding pianists.

Bruce Duffie:  We’ve just come from a piano recital by a different artist.  Is it important for one pianist to listen to performances of another pianist?

Gilbert Kalish:  To tell the truth, I don’t hear so many recitals just because I’m busy and it’s not something that I have a lot of time to do.  I live in New York, but I don’t take advantage of that as much as I should, and the recitals I hear are mainly recitals of my students.  I have twelve students and each of them has to give a number of solo recitals and chamber recitals a year, so I hear a lot of recitals that way.  That being said, it is always deeply interesting, and often times very pleasurable to hear other artists.  Garrick Ohlsson is somebody I admire a great deal.  He’s somebody that sets an example for people in the profession.

BD:    If you listen to one or two recitals of people you respect, do you take some of their ideas, or find some flaws that you be sure to avoid in your own performance?

GK:    It’s more that I hear the way other people think about music
how they think about the piano and how they play the piano and how they get around the instrument.  It’s just like part of the trade; I don’t know what I take or don’t take from it.  I’m a different person, a different pianist.  I can’t do what he does.  He’s a powerhouse!  People do what they do because of what they are and who they are.  They develop a sound that’s consonant with who they are and what they can do.  I can’t do what he does!

kalish BD:    You have your own sound?

GK:    I guess I have my own sound.  I hope I have my own sound!

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  Especially with the plethora of recordings, is it more difficult these days to get your students to stay away from other performances and develop their own sound and their own ideas?  [Vis-à-vis the record shown at right, see my interviews with Milton Babbitt, Arthur Berger, John Cage, George Crumb, Harvey Sollberger, and Nicolas Slonimsky.]

GK:    I’ll tell you philosophically what my approach is.  We don’t talk about other people’s performances.  I don’t talk about it.  I don’t think about it myself.  I basically think about the music.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m now sixty-four years old.  I’ve lived with music a long time and I take ideas from the text, from my own experience and from my own predilections.  What I hope for with students is that they all sound like themselves; this is ideal, philosophically.  I hope it’s like that, that none of them sound like me.  So what am I doing there if they don’t sound like me?  I take young artists who appeal to me, who are attractive to me, who have something in their playing that speaks to me.  As I’m in different places, I realize that there are a spectacular number of young fine artists, some of whom don’t speak to me and who I wouldn’t be happy living with week after week, year after year.  Others, maybe with different skills, sometimes with less skills, speak to me more immediately.  All right, I take somebody in my life and I usually work with them three or four years.  I hope that at the end of that period of time, they still sound like the person that appealed to me at the beginning, and yet maybe they’ve learned things.  I talk a lot about playing the piano, about making a sound with the instrument, about articulation, about legato.  It’s a craft, and it’s a craft that didn’t come so easily to me.  I’m not born to be a pianist; in my whole youth, I thought of myself as deeply inadequate to play the piano.

BD:    And yet you plugged along?

GK:    Yes, I plugged along.  I had a yearning for music and I had some gift for communication.  But what I mean to say is that many, many of the standard works were pieces that I couldn’t play.  I couldn’t play them!

BD:    Were they beyond your technical grasp?

GK:    Beyond my technical grasp.

BD:    Were they beyond your intellectual grasp?

GK:    Well, that’s not for me to say! [Both laugh]  But beyond my ability to physically play them, I would get immensely fatigued on the instrument.  I would not be able to sustain a powerful piece, like middle period Beethoven sonatas or like Chopin.  So I was a person with a musical gift and a longing for music.  I was able to have some success that way, yet I knew I couldn’t really play the instrument.

BD:    So why didn’t you go to violin or trombone?

GK:    I did play violin and I was really, really terrible at that.  I played piano, so that’s what I played.  It wasn’t that I failed at it, it’s just that I knew I was not adequate for the repertoire; so I’ve thought a lot about playing the piano.  I had some important people along the way that gave me insights, so when I teach, I think a lot about what my students do.  I try to be very aware that they don’t hurt themselves.  That’s one of the most important things a teacher can do
give a student tools and a way of playing, so that they can be healthy for their whole life.  Do you know how many injuries there are of promising and brilliant pianists?

BD:    I was unaware it was a major problem.

GK:    There are injuries because they’re playing the piano in a way that’s hurting them, so as a teacher, that’s an immense part of the responsibility.

BD:    Is there always a way to get around this, or are there some people who just physically can’t do it, no matter what?

GK:    There are always better ways to play the piano than unhealthy ways.  There are some people who are certainly more natural than others, but there’s an immense amount that can be taught about playing the piano in a healthy way.  Ideally, I would say you could sit at the piano all day and not hurt yourself.  That’s what you should be able to do.  So with my students, I try very hard to help them in that way.  I present to them my insights, my experience, my knowledge, repertoire, and I hope they emerge — and they seem to emerge — successfully in the profession.  Even though everybody says what a difficult time it is in the profession, you can’t stop talent, and they find a way of being musicians
like the young people here at the Steans Institute.  I go now from one festival to another over the course of the summerfour or five festivalsand there are just a wonderful number of very gifted young people who need to play music, who will play music, and who will be in the profession.

BD:    Are there enough spots for them?

GK:    There will be enough spots for them, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You go all over the country and all over the world.  Each time you come to a new piano, how long is it before that is your piano?

kalish GK:    That’s part of the challenge, and in a way, part of the fun of being a pianist.  The given is you do not have your own instrument, and wherever you come, you deal with the instrument that you’re given.  The challenge is to make it something that sounds sort of like you, like what you believe you want to sound like, and that takes the best quality out of that piano and uses it.

BD:    And the best quality out of you?

GK:    The best that you can do.

BD:    How much do you have to adjust to various pianos?

GK:    You know what you want to sound like.  You don’t play the piano by feel.  I think the art of making music is the art of listening — listening and responding.

BD:    Listening to your instincts, or listening to the composer?

GK:    Listening to what’s coming out as you play!  If you’re on automatic, if you have a way of playing and that way is predicated on some kind of physical memory of what it feels like to play, then it’s going to be very hard for you to adjust.  If you play by responding to what you hear, then you have at least a chance to make the best of a piano.  It’s very interesting.  If you’re making a recording or playing a concert and the place doesn’t have a concert grand, you might go down to the basement of Steinway to pick a piano.  They say, “Okay, we have these five pianos and you can choose one of them,” and the amazing thing is to hear how different the piano makes you sound.

BD:    So you try to find the one that brings out the best in you?

GK:    In that case, you have the opportunity to find the one that you respond to the most, and that makes you love what you hear the most!  When you come to a concert hall, you don’t have that opportunity so you have to try to make the best that you can out of whatever you have.  And that’s fun!  I don’t consider that unpleasant work.

BD:    You don’t have to be specific, but are there times when it’s a struggle, and are there other times when it’s very easy?

GK:    I can be very specific, and there’s no question about it.  Here I’ll play on two pianos.  In the Martin Theater there’s a very lovely piano; easy to play, the action is very reliable.  You can play very softly on it; you can play with power.  It has range.  It doesn’t get ugly when you play with power.  The piano in the Institute building is different, an older German Steinway.  I don’t think it’s a good piano.  I haven’t played on it yet, but I’ve heard the students play on it, and clearly it’s either past its prime, or it needs work, or it never was a good piano.  That one will be a challenge to play on.  I’m playing with the students the Dvořák Quintet.

BD:    On the one at the Martin Theater, you had to play both Mozart and Brahms.  Is it right to expect a single piano to understand both of those styles?

kalish GK:    One has the right to expect that of a fine modern instrument.  But don’t forget, in all of these cases you’re playing basically on an instrument very different from the one for which the piece was written.  That’s also part of the fun; one talks about a sense of style.  What is a sense of style?  Well, it’s many, many things.  One of the things is the milieu in which that piece was written.  What was the instrument Mozart had?  Any great composer writes for what they have, and it’s okay that we’re playing on a very different instrument.  But it’s really important, in a way, to think about the qualities of an early fortepiano, and how can we, in some way, transfer those qualities to our own piano.  So I think I am obligated to play very differently in Mozart and in Brahms.  And I try to.  It’s not even a matter of try to.  I have a sound in my head and I want to make that sound.  So I try to find a way, on that piano, to make the sound, to articulate in a certain way.  For instance, pedal.  For instance, legato.  For instance, dynamic range.  It’s not the same in Mozart and in Brahms.

BD:    But it’s still your sound?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Charles Wuorinen, and Isang Yun.]

GK:    I hope so!  Yeah, that’s a nice thing, too!

BD:    Do you have just one sound, or do you have a Mozart sound and a Brahms sound?

GK:    I don’t want to be immodest about it, but at least I very much try to differentiate different composers.  There’s just no question about it, that I try to make different sounds.  That’s one of my pleasures in playing the piano
to deal with the sound world of the instrument and of the composer.  It’s one of the things that I enjoy doing.  Whether I do it well or not, that’s not for me to say.  I had a wonderful experience this year.  There is a man in Massachusetts who has a collection of something like twenty historic pianos...

BD:    Broadwoods, and things?

GK:    Yes, Broadwoods and things from 1785 up to 1907.  He has them in his house in this little town in central Massachusetts.  He has a Bösendorfer from 1827 named Number One, so it is the number one Bosendorfer ever made.  He has Pleyels; he has Erards.  He has the piano, I think it’s called Steier, that Brahms had.  Not the instrument, but that size and that model that Brahms had in his house.  I brought my class up there.  They’re mature people; they have cars, and we took a trip.  This is a man who lets you play on the pianos, and he also is a knowledgeable man who lectures.  I don’t know that that really changes, that I can say, “Okay, you do that, you hear that piano, and therefore, you play this way.”  It’s not A-B, but anything that can open up your ears to other possibilities can only be good for one.  So, that’s the way I am.  You asked the question a long time ago about dealing with a piano onstage.  It’s one of the real pleasures of being a pianist, even though people say, “It must be very difficult.”

BD:    I think it would be an adventure.

GK:    All right, that’s a good way of putting it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now let’s go the other way.  You do a lot of modern music and work with composers.  Does this help you deal better with Mozart and with Brahms because you’ve worked with living composers?

GK:    It’s not for me to say, except that I have a strong opinion about it, so I’ll tell you my opinion.  I’ve done, as you say, a lot of work with wonderful composers — and terrible composers, also — and that’s okay.  There are both!  I not only work with the composers, but there is the work with the music of our time, which is so different in its demands from music of the past centuries — not harder, just different.  Each different sound world calls upon different kinds of facility — again, not more difficult, just different; different kinds of brilliance, different kinds of vigor and contrast and energy.  I think all of that has been absolutely wonderful for me in enlarging my imagination.  Whether it’s enlarged my palatte, I think it has.  It’s not that it’s made me try to enlarge my palate; it’s just that to get certain effects in the music of our time, you need to develop certain skills, and those skills can be useful in other music.  Has it been important to me to work with composers, and what has that done?  Well, it’s given me at least an insight into the way that creative minds work.  Let’s take my dear friend Ralph Shapey — who is a wonderful Chicago person, and a grand and magnificent composer.  What I like to do is get a score and do it myself — no matter who the composer is.  So that goes back to your question about hearing other performances.  I don’t.  I don’t want to.  I want to do it myself!  In a way, I have to trust myself; I have to trust my instincts.  

kalish BD:    Then the composer also has to trust you.

GK:    This is the thing!  The experience of Ralph’s pieces or any of the numerous composers that I’ve worked with, my approach is first to learn the piece, then bring it to them
not to hear from them first what I should doOf course, at times the composer has said, “Gil, I didn’t mean that.  That’s way to fast (or) that’s way to slow.”  But more often the response has been, “Isn’t that interesting!  I hadn’t particularly thought of it that way.  That’s really fine.  That’s another way of doing it.”

BD:    So then you’re a discoverer?  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at right, see my interviews with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and Yehudi Wyner.]

GK:    In a way.  What are you doing when you play other people’s music?  What’s the point?  This is something I feel very strongly about.  What are we?  What are we doing?  If we don’t use our imagination, if we’re not saying something original, if we’re not saying something personal, what’s the point of it all?  Every composition would sound exactly alike in anybody’s hands if there was one right way of doing it.  Yes, composers are very meticulous
some more than othersin marking the music, but whatever is on the page is a bare approximation; it is an outline of what the composer really wants.  They often don’t know what they want!  Notation is a very inexact science, thank goodness!  Otherwise, every sixteenth note would be exactly alike!  If there weren’t a crescendo, there would be no difference in any dynamic along that path.  If there wasn’t a change of dynamic, the whole dynamic would stay the same.  That’s not being a human being!  Then we would be absolutely metronomic, because if the music doesn’t indicate a change of speed, it won’t go slower or faster.  Thank goodness that’s not the way it is!  This is a bare outline.  You take that and you have your own experience, and you’ve lived with Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Haydn and Brahms, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Then there is Shapey, and you bring what you’ve learned in your years to that music that you see.  Shapey has also lived with Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, and absorbed that.  So you give what you give!  And then, of course it’s important to get the reaction of the composer.  If you’ve gone really on the wrong path, okay, then you want to hear that.  But most often, composers are not really interested to tell you that’s right and that’s wrong.  They want to say, “Wow, that’s an interesting vision of this piece!  I didn’t know it could sound like that.”  That’s the most satisfying thing, and that gives me the insightrightly or wronglyto think, “If any of these great masters of the past were here, I would do the same.”  And I would hope they would say, “That’s really interesting.”

BD:    Is it your primary responsibility, then, to please the composer?

GK:    Your primary responsibility is to take the text, and with as much integrity as you can, read that and make it something that speaks from yourself.  I think that’s the primary responsibility.  It’s a horrible thing to distort a composer.  It’s a horrible thing to be willful and to ignore a composer.  But there’s no way of reproducing what a composer actually put on paper, except through your own personal insights.

BD:    So then there is no such thing as a perfect performance.

GK:    That’s not a word that means something to me.  There’s not even such a thing as a correct performance.  There are good performances; there are insightful performances; there are exciting performances and there are bad performances!  Bad performances are badly done, and with an imagination that does not read this text well!  But who’s to say?

BD:    Who is to say?

GK:    Nobody.  Nobody is to say.

BD:    Not the pianist?  Not the audience?

GK:    It comes out as it comes out.  Here we are at the Steans Institute there are many faculty members.  These are all people that I respect and I think they all respect each other.  They come out of a performance, and one says, “Wasn’t that awful?  How could they do that?”  Then the other one
who has coached the piece and whose vision, perhaps, is reflected in that performanceis quite taken aback.  It’s impossible to say who’s right or wrong.  It’s not meaningful.  We get to a certain place in life because there’s been enough respect.  You can’t just pick somebody off the street and say, “Why don’t you come and teach piano at the Steans Institute?  Why don’t you come and coach music?”  You don’t pick somebody in an audience.  There is an accumulation of knowledge.  There is an accumulation of craft and skill!  Then what is the truth?  There is no truth.

BD:    We can talk about craft or skill or knowledge.  Where does the heart enter into this?

GK:    [Laughs]  You ask very difficult questions!  Heart is the vision!  It’s how you speak!  I’ve had a student here
and it’s a person who has won competitionsand I don’t understand what that person is saying.  It doesn’t speak to me.  It’s doesn’t have an expressive quality that I understand.  It doesn’t have heart in the way that I understand it.  Clearly this is a person who has gained the admiration of other people, so we’ll see how it turns out in their life.  I wish them success.  Still, I don’t quite understand what other people hear when they hear this person play.

BD:    But at least you’re giving it an open mind and an open ear!

GK:    I think so.

BD:    Is that your recommendation for audiences
to come with open minds and open ears?

GK:    Yeah.  It’s terrible when some of my colleagues can’t help it.  It’s part of our profession.  We come there and the wheels are turning
what can we find that’s wrong?  What can we criticize?  What can we find not to like?

BD:    Of course, if you’re asked to teach, it would be terrible to say, “Oh, you’re fine,” and give them no advice.

GK:    That’s absolutely true!  [Both laugh]  That’s a waste of time!  But I would love just for an audience to respond as they respond, and that’s all; not to ask of themselves anything more.  The more they know, of course, the more informed their judgment is.  But finally, does it appeal to them?  That’s all.  That’s all you can ask.


BD:    When you’re playing, are you conscious of the audience that’s on your right?

GK:    No.

BD:    Not at all?

GK:    Well, I don’t know whether you’re asking if am I conscious that there are people there, or am I self-conscious and nervous?

BD:    No, are you conscious that they’re there, and are you drawing on their aura?

GK:    Not consciously, but I think you can’t help but feel even the stillness in a room, the attention or lack of attention in a room.  It’s not something you look for one way or the other.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We talked a little bit about composers.  What advice do you have for people who want to write music for the keyboard these days as we’re plunging toward a new millennium?

kalish GK:    I’ve lived through many decades of compositional style, more or less having been brought up from the nineteenth century tradition, growing up and reaching the time when I had to enter the profession in the middle-late fifties.  I’ve heard the music of all of these decadesthe different styles, the different conventions, the different music that was considered elite and correct, and that was scorned.  It’s been fascinating to see that what was the right music, what was considered appropriate in the fifties and sixties, fell into disfavor in the seventies and eighties, and is considered academic and dry and uninteresting.  Every composer is a product of their time and of their own background.  Ralph Shapey, for instance, is in his late seventies.  His compositional style and philosophy were formed in the forties and the fifties.  He’s writing, thank goodness, the music that he feels deeply and believes in.  Somebody who arrived on the scene twenty years later could not possibly write that music!  Somebody who came twenty years later than Beethoven could not possibly write the music that Beethoven wrote.

BD:    You have to write what you believe?

GK:    You are partly trapped in your time, and that’s okay.  Every period of time has somebody who will have the genius to put that language into such a form that it will be powerful and move people.  Every composer should write out of their deep conviction, and I have to say that the majority of composers don’t have deep convictions!

BD:    Really???

GK:    Yeah, I think so.  Or, they don’t have profound genius.  But that’s in every era.  I’m not condemning the music of our time or the composers of our time, but we have zillions of universities and departments of music and graduate programs in composition and zillions of people who are composers, and very few of them have a real voice.

BD:    I can understand if you say that there’s not too much genius around; there’s only a little bit of that to go around.

GK:    Right.

BD:    But isn’t it each person’s responsibility to have conviction?

GK:    It’s hard to have conviction, especially now.  I think it was easier to compose when there was an accepted language.  Language, you know, changed somewhat slowly, and yet kept many things in common.  We have to realize that Chopin was writing when Beethoven and Schumann were still alive, yet how different they are.  But, there are many things in common.  There’s a kind of acceptance of harmony as the basis of musical language.  There is sort of no acceptable language now, and it’s hard for a person to choose their language.  I feel for composers, nowadays!

BD:    No acceptable language, or no forbidden language?

GK:    There’s no forbidden language, and no correct language.  Anything goes.  So people are writing music that’s not demanding and not acerbic.  Classical music, so to speak, is changing so much.  It’s opening up.  It’s so wild, what’s happening!  There’s the downtown people, the minimalists, the people deeply influenced by rock and roll.  There’s serious controversies in universities and university departments.  Do young composers have to study counterpoint?  Do they have to have the same skills that they once had?  There are very deep divisions!  No, that’s an antiquated language; they don’t need that.

BD:    We’re kind of losing that, I’m afraid.

GK:    I’m afraid, too!  I guess you get to be an old fuddy-duddy after a while, and I hope I’m not.  It’s a basis for the craft!  Music is structure; music is not wild, unbridled expressions of emotion, without form — at least to me!  So if form is important, form is decided by certain principles.  That sounds fuddy-duddy-ish.  [Both laugh]  Anyway, those are the controversies in the departments.  And now, of course, people are learning from popular music, and it’s very foreign to me.  I didn’t grow up that way; that’s not who I am.  I’m very limited.

cd BD:    Well, are you optimistic about the future of musical composition, especially for the piano?

GK:    Absolutely!  Well, in a general way.  I think progress is not always positive.  I’m not a person who believes that everything that happens is a positive thing, but you can’t stop history and you can’t stop music.  Music is too powerful.  I see it too much, not only in myself, but in all the young people I deal with.  It’s a tremendous force.  Whatever form and shape it takes, it has to be powerful and important, and it will be.  I have no fear.  Maybe in a century there won’t be any of the trappings of what we see nowadays
concert halls, orchestras, string quartets.  I don’t know, but whatever, there will be an expression of the musical force somehow or other.  I don’t think it’s right to be pessimistic.  I don’t think it’s right to say to students, “There’s no place for you to go; forget about it.”  These are people who have deep needs to express music, and they have something important to say that’s a gift.  They need to express that and they will find an outlet.  I find that they do find outlets.  They won’t be the musician that I am; they’ll be different!  They’ll be going on a different path, and that’s fine.

BD:    And you’re different from your grandfather?

GK:    Exactly, exactly.  So there’s nothing to resent.  I give them what I can give them; then they take from me and people of my generation, and they take from their own generation.  One of the most important things is that they work with the composers who are their age, just like I did with the composers who were my age that I grew up with — they’re older than me, but people like Elliott Carter
doing premieres of his works.  And I will mention Ralph again because I love him so much; Ralph Shapey and George Crumb and on and on.  These people are now in their sixties and seventies and eighties.  This is my generation!  It’s proper that I did that and it’s proper that the young people work with people who are unknown now, who are of their generation, and that they do their music.  It’s an obligation of musicians, I think.

BD:    So you would give to a younger pianist the work of a younger composer?

GK:    As a teacher, I hope to expose my students to as much of the great repertoire as is possible in the limited amount of time, so they’ll do the masterworks of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century.  And they’ll do the works of their colleagues.  I teach at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and they have a very, very lively, active contemporary program
maybe ten concerts a year of new music, even from a very small place.  There are concerts that are premieres of works of outsiders, and two or three concerts a year of the works of the young composers there.  Who plays them?  Not me!  The students do.  That’s proper.  It’s not that I wouldn’t play them, it’s just that this is appropriate.  These are their colleagues.  I’m busy!  I’m teaching; I’m playing recitals!  I’m trying to keep my head above water!  And yes, I try to learn new things; I always learn new things.  But it’s appropriate that they get down there in the pits and learn the new works of their generation.

BD:    And bring them to the audience.

GK:    And out of those people, there will be people of real genius and talent and power.  And of course, you’re right.  I shouldn’t be snobbish and I don’t mean to be snobbish.  There’s a large range of worthwhile music out there, and there are very many good composers.  Some will really reach you; some you will admire and appreciate, as in any era.  They had craft, they had skill.  They didn’t rise to the level of having a special voice, but they deserve to be heard.  They enrich the community; they enrich the musical language.  They deserve to be heard and they will be heard, and that’s fine.  I don’t mean to be snobbish and by no means should young students pick and choose or say, “We will only do the masterworks.”  Nor should I, and I don’t because I don’t know what the work will be like until I play it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

GK:    [Laughs] I am more than pleased, and I have been for a long time.  To tell you the truth, I look at my own career with a sense of wonderment, and I always have.  Some people are deeply ambitious, and no matter where they get, they’re deeply dissatisfied with the recognition they have in this world.  And I feel very badly for them; some of those people are really very successful.  I feel that I’m remarkably successful, and that I couldn’t ask for more than I have, and that whatever my gifts were, I have been able to be in a position to speak those gifts to their fullest.  In other words, I don’t feel I should be doing greater things than I’m doing; I love the things I’m doing and I’m very pleased.  I get to be at the Steans Institute, I get to be performing in Ravinia, to have had thirty years at Tanglewood, and then this summer to be at Sarasota, Great Lakes Festival, Ravinia, Yellow Barn in Vermont, La Jolla and play with great musicians.  I’ve recorded what I’ve recorded, met the great composers that I’ve met, have a decent living from my university and deal with fantastic students and talents!

BD:    You’re a happy man!

cd GK:    I’m very content with what I’ve done.  I’m astonished.  I never expected it.  I grew up alone in my musical world.  It was important for my mother that if you had a child with a gift, that it be developed, but she didn’t really know a lot.  And I went to public schools.  I went to Columbia University.  I didn’t go to Juilliard.  I didn’t go to a music school.  I studied privately and somehow slipped into the profession.  I didn’t do competitions.  I didn’t do any of that!  I slipped into the profession sort of on the shoulders of having learned and loved chamber music.  Then I was feeling really curious about new music.  I married young and felt, “I have to make a living,” and this was one outlet because other people were not doing it.  The people at Juilliard were not doing it because their teachers were teaching them the old war horses and they were going for competitions.  I just was not taking that route.  I somehow got in on the periphery and did new music and chamber music.  Somehow that led me to my solo work of Ives, and then back to my roots, where I studied what I studied when I was a youngster
the great masters.  Then came the opportunity to do Haydn and to do chamber music with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players for thirty years, with my colleagues in the Juilliard Quartet, with Jan DeGaetani.  We met as youngsters and we were in a new music group together, and just did recitals because we were curious young people and we wanted to do recitals, so we did recitals.  I remember I had a series at Swarthmore College and I said to Jan, “I can’t offer you more than seventy-five dollars, but I can tell you that I’ll rehearse as much as you want.  Let’s do a recital.”  And you know, out of nothing, all this things somehow developed.

BD:    You did it your own way.

GK:    You learn.  So therefore, always my advice to the people I deal with is just do the best work you know how in whatever you’re doing.  Somebody will hear you and will say, “Oh, that’s good stuff!”  There’ll be concentric circles in your life; one will lead to another and that’s how you’ll make your way.  I don’t think most people make their way by being stars.  That’s not a happy way, either.  If you’re a star, you’re a star.  Okay, that’s great if you have that kind of immense gift and you can take the pressure.  But otherwise there are lots of gifts in music; there isn’t one gift.  There are many different kinds of gifts.  I always think the most important thing is to enjoy what you’re doing.  Do it to the best of your ability, no matter the circumstance!  I have many little pathways that finally led me to a very satisfying life.  I learned the Ives Violin Sonatas with a young violinist named Paul Zukovsky.  He was about nineteen and maybe I was twenty-five.  I didn’t know why I was learning them.  He was curious; he pushed me to it and I said, “Sure, you think it’s interesting.  Let’s do it.”  We went to the library and looked at the manuscripts, and we learned the four of them.  So this monumental kind of effort went into doing these pieces, but I was young, and I had time to do it because that’s what I was doing.  We played in this church in Brooklyn, and who cares?  There were maybe sixteen people in the audience.  All this work and there’s nobody there!  At the end of the concert, somebody comes up and he says, “I am Sam Charters.  I work for Folkways Records and I am a fanatic follower of Ives.  I do folk recordings for Folkways.  I go in the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee and get people who are in Appalachia doing their things.  But they let me do anything I want and I want to record you guys in all these sonatas.”  I thought he was crazy, but he did record us.  And somebody else picked that up, and we did it in New York and got a huge spread in the New York Times!

BD:    [Laughs] Out of a little audience of sixteen people!

GK:    Out of that; just because you do the work because you want to do it.  What happens, happens.  I’m not Pollyanna.  I don’t think it’s like that, but it really is the truth
you can’t make it happen.  The only thing you can make happen is that you do well, that you do what you do with love and integrity, and then you see what happens.

BD:    I’m glad you happened!

GK:    [Laughs] Thanks.

Gilbert Kalish leads a musical life of unusual variety and breadth. His profound influence on the musical community as educator, and as pianist in myriad performances and recordings, has established him as a major figure in American music making.

A native New Yorker and graduate of Columbia College, Mr. Kalish studied with Leonard Shure, Julius Hereford and Isabella Vengerova. He has been the pianist of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players since 1969 and was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; a group devoted to new music that flourished during the 1960's and 70's. He is a frequent guest artist with many of the world's most distinguished chamber ensembles. His thirty-year partnership with the great mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani was universally recognized as one of the most remarkable artistic collaborations of our time. He maintains long-standing duos with the cellists Timothy Eddy and Joel Krosnick, and he appears frequently with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

As educator he is Leading Professor and Head of Performance Activities at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. From 1968-1997 he was a faculty member of the Tanglewood Music Center and served as the "Chairman of the Faculty" at Tanglewood from 1985-1997. He often serves as guest faculty at distinguished music institutions such as the Banff Centre and the Steans Institute at Ravinia, and is renowned for his master class presentations.

Mr. Kalish's discography of some 100 recordings encompasses classical repertory, 20th Century masterworks and new compositions. Of special note are his solo recordings of Charles Ives' Concord Sonata and Sonatas of Joseph Haydn, an immense discography of vocal music with Jan DeGaetani and landmarks of the 20th Century by composers such as Carter, Crumb, Shapey and Schoenberg. In 1995 he was presented with the Paul Fromm Award by the University of Chicago Music Department for distinguished service to the music of our time.

Curriculum Vitae

Columbia College, B.A.

Supplementary Studies:
Berkshire Music Center
Marlboro Festival

Julius Hereford, Isabella Vengerova, Leonard Shure

Faculty Positions:
SUNY Stony Brook Artist-in-Residence/Professor 1970 - present
SUNY Purchase 1975-1979
Rutgers University 1966-1969
Swarthmore College Associate in Performance 1966-1974

Honorary Doctorate - Swarthmore College, 1987
Paul Fromm Award - University of Chicago, 1995
(for distinguished service to the music of our time)
Guest Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Settlement School 1996
Grammy nomination
Winner of "Indie" award 1997 and 1999 - given by Independent Record Producers for the Outstanding Chamber Music Disc of the year

Contemporary Chamber Ensemble 1962-1979
Regular Pianist for Boston Symphony Chamber Players 1969-1998
Gramercy Chamber Ensemble
Aeolian Chamber Players
Penn Contemporary Players (Univ. of Pennsylvania)

Guest Appearances with:
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Buffalo Symphony Orchestra
Greenwich Symphony
Newton Symphony
New York Philharmonic
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Concord Quartet
Emerson Quartet
Fine Arts Quartet
Juilliard Quartet
Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra
New Jersey Chamber Orchestra
New World String Quartet
New York Woodwind Quintet
Orion String Quartet
Sea Cliff Chamber Players
Thouvenal String Quartet

Guest artist with: Ying Quartet, Minnesota Chamber Music, St. Lawrence Quartet, Talich Quartet, New England String Ensemble, Avalon Quartet, The Barge Series (NY), Houston Chamber Music Society.

Radio and Television:
Many appearances for BBC, Australian, New Zealand, German and Ammerican TV including first British Broadcast of Crumb Makrokosmos for Solo Piano; Complete Beethoven Violin and Piano Sonatas; Complete Ives Violin and Piano Sonatas.

Solo Work:
Recitals throughout much of the world.
Appearances at many leading music festivals, such as Mostly Mozart, New York; Brighton and Aldeburgh, England; Ojai, California; Lucerne, Switzerland; Sarasota, Florida; Badenweiler, Germany; Rotterdam and Amsterdam, Netherlands, and many others.
Numerous first performances of works written for the performer by many of the world's leading composers (Carter, Crumb, Reynolds, Kupferman, etc.)
Concerto appearances in some of the most significant works of the 20th Century by composers, such as Berg, Berio, Carter, Messiaen and Stravinsky.

Numerous concert appearances (about 50 per year) in many of the major world centers including New York concerts at Carnegie, Avery Fisher, Town Hall, 92nd Street "Y", Symphony Space, Tully Hally, Weill, Merkin, Miller Theatre (including the first solo piano recital in this newly renovated Columbia University concert hall).

Tours of Japan, Europe and South America with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.

European and American tours with leading concert artists, such as Jan De Gaetani, Dawn Upshaw, The Juilliard Quartet and many others.

World Premiere Performances:
Works by Bacon, Carter, Copland, Crumb, Ives, Kirchner, Perle, Shapey, Walden, etc.
(1999-2000) David Diamond, Osvaldo Golijov, James Primosch, Ralph Shapey

Beethoven - Complete Works for Cello & Piano (Arabesque)
Berg - Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano
Berger - 3 pieces for 2 Pianos (Columbia)
Berger  - Cello Duo, Guitar Trio (New World)
Alan Blank - Notation for Piano (CRI)
Brahms Horn and Clarinet Trios (Nonesuch)
Brahms Songs (Arabesque)
Brahms Piano Quartet (Musical Heritage)
Carter - Double Concerto, Duo for Violin and Piano (Nonesuch)
Copland - Piano Variations, Piano Quartet and Sextet (Nonesuch)
Crumb - Makrokosmos III for 2 Pianos and 2 Percussion (Nonesuch)
Crumb - Apparition (Bridge)
Debussy - Afternoon of a Faun (arranged by Schonberg)
Debussy - En Blanc et Noir (Nonesuch)
Debusy and Ravel Songs (Arabesque)
Foote and Beach - Violin Piano Sonatas (New World) 1977
Steven Foster - Songs (Nonesuch)
Haydn - Piano Sonatas, five volumes (Nonesuch)
Ives - Piano Trio - Complete works for Piano and Strings (Columbia)
The Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano (Folkways)
Concord Sonata - (Nonesuch)
Ives - Songs (Bridge)
Ives Trio (with Yo Yo Ma) (SONY)
Kupferman - Celestial City (Concerto for Piano and tape) (Serenus)
Concerto for Flute - Piano and String Quartet (Serenus)
Martino - Trio (CRI)
Mozart - Sonata and Fantasie (Baldwin)
Poulenc - Music for Piano and Winds (Nonesuch)
Rachmaninoff and Chausson - Songs (Nonesuch)
Saint Saens - Works for various wind instruments and piano (Desto)
Schoenberg - Pierrot Lunaire (Concert Disc)
Suite Opus 29 (Deutshe Gramaphone)
Kammerkonzert Opus 9 (arranged by Webern)
Fantasie for Violin and Piano
Pierrot Lunaire - 2nd recording (Nonesuch)
Schoenberg-Schubert - Songs (Nonesuch)
Schubert - Solo Piano Music (Nonesuch)
Schuman - Vocal Duets (Nonesuch)
Shapey - Cello Sonata (New World)
Silver - Cello Sonata (CRI)
Smetana Trio (Nonesuch)
Sonatas for Violin and Piano, 2nd recording (Nonesuch)
Songs - (Nonesuch)
Strauss - Waltzes (arranged by Schonberg, Berg and Webern)
(Recorded by DGG with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players
New American Music on 5 records with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble with works by Druckman, Harbison, Myrow, Reynolds, Schwantner, Shifrin
Wolpe (Nonesuch)
Wolf - Songs (Nonesuch)
With Ronald Roseman, Oboe
Hindemith - Sonata Schuman - Romances
Kupferman - Dialogues Schuller _Sonata (Desto)
Music in the Shadow of WW I (Arabesque) Indie Award - 1999
Music in the Shadow of WW II (Arabesque) Indie Award - 1997
Songs of Messiaen with Dawn Upshaw (to be released by Nonesuch)
Harbison Songs & Piano Quintet with Dawn Upshaw and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players (Nonesuch)

3 time nominee for Grammy Award
Selected as mong the best recording of the year by New York Times, Stero Review, Time, Newsweek, High Fidelity, Village Voice
Reissue on CD of many previous LP records including Ives Concord Sonata and Haydn Piano Sonatas plus works of Brahms, Ives, Wolf, Ravel, Schumann, Schonberg, etc.

Master Classes: (1999-2000)
The Banff Centre
Toronto Conservatory
Boston Conservatory
Peabody Conservatory
The Eastman School
Port Jefferson Arts Council (Fees donated to the SB Music Dept.)
Music Conservatory, Madrid, Spain

Festival Concert Appearances:
Aldeburgh, England
Badenweler, Germany
Banff Centre, Canada
Bonn, Germany
Chamber Music West, San Francisco
Duisburg, Germany
Kennedy Center
Mostly Mozart, Avery Fisher Hall, NY
Pepsico, Purchase, NY
Ravinia, Chicago
Swarthmore Festival of Music and Dance
Symphony Space, NY - Scarlatti, Beethoven Marathons
Tanglewood Music Center

Summer Music Festivals (current) - Faculty and Performing Artist:
The Banff Centre
California Summer Music, Pebble Beach, CA
Great Lakes Festival, MI
Ravinia Steans Institute
Sarasota Music Festival, FL
Summerfest, La Jolla, CA
Yale at Norfolk
Yellow Barn, Putney, VT

Summer Music Festivals prior to 1998:
Bowdoin College Summer Music School and Festival
Cummington School of the Arts
New College Festival, Sarasota, FL
Tanglewood Music Center
(Chairman of Faculty)
Banff Center for the Arts
Jerusalem Music Center

Other Professional Activities:
Head of Keyboard Panel - International Conference on 20th Cent. Notation, Ghent, Belgium
Judge - Three Rivers International Piano Competition (1978, 1979)
Judge - Naumberg "Chamber Music Ensembles" Competition (1979)
Visiting Committee - Dartmouth Music Department (1977)
Trustee - Greenwood Music Camp (1974-1978)
Judge - International Competition for American music for Piano
(Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Hall, 1981)
Member of the artist advisory board of Pro Musicus, an organization which sponsors and supports young musicians.
Judge - Naumburg Piano Competition
Judge - Naumburg Chamber Music Competiton
Judge - Fischoff Chamber Music Competition
Board Member of the Charles Ives Society
Board Member of Ditson Fund (Columbia)
Advisory Board - Orchestra 2001 (Philadelphia)
Miller Theatre (Columbia University)

Cover Photo Artist and article about my work in Clavier Magazine
Feature Article about my work in Boston Globe Sunday Magazine

Service at Stony Brook:
Chairman of the Performance Faculty
Member, Music Dept. Advisory Council
Director, Contemporary Chamber Players
Member, Concert Committee, UG Studies Committee; served on numerous other dept. committees; presently head of Dept. Chair Committee.
Search Committees: Clarinet (chair), Flute (Chair), Voice, Conductor, Composer, Viola, Violin (Chair), Piano (Chair)
Member of University Honorary Doctorate Committee for 3 years
State University of NY Festival of the Arts
Selected by SB music department students as Outstanding Teacher of the year in 1980.

Recent Honor:
Paul Fromm Award, presented by the Department of Music, the University of Chicago, in recognition of outstanding contributions to the performance and advocacy of the music of our time, April 2, 1995.

Recent Recordings:
Ludwig van Beethoven, Cello Sonatas and Variations, with Joel Krosnick, CD, Arabesque, Z6656-2 (1995).

Bartok, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, CD, Delos 3151 (1993).

Charles Ives, Trio, with Yo-Yo Ma and Ronan Lefkowitz, CD, Sony SK 53126 (1993).

Charles Ives, Songs, with Jan DeGaetani, CD, Elektra/Nonesuch, 9 71325-2 (1976, reissue 1990).

Songs of America, with Jan DeGaetani, CD, Elektra/Nonesuch, 9 79178-2 (1988)

"Kroslish Sonata," by Ralph Shapey, CD, New World Records, NW 355-2 (1978)

© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, on July 15, 1999.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2009 and posted on this website at that time.

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.