Pianist  Ramon  Salvatore

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ramon Salvatore was a Chicago-based pianist and teacher who was best known for championing neglected American piano repertory.

Described by the Chicago Tribune as “one of Chicago’s most important musical ambassadors,” and hailed by The New York Times for his “bravura performances” and “splendid audacity” in programming, Ramon Salvatore (1944-1996) commanded national attention as a pianist who combined rhythmic panache and warm lyric cogency with a pioneering spirit. Praised for his poetic standard repertory performances, he also won acclaim as a musical trailblazer, exploring still-undiscovered American terrain: the virtuoso piano music of our nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A recipient of a major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, Mr. Salvatore presented a three-concert series titled “American Piano Music in the Grand Tradition” at New York’s Weill Recital Hall, which he repeated at the Chicago Cultural Center. In that series, Salvatore uncovered over 120 years of masterly keyboard works that reflected international traditions, yet spoke with a distinctively American voice. Included were such diverse composers as Amy Beach, Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, Arthur Foote, John La Montaine, Hunter Johnson, Robert Palmer, Philip Ramey, and Wallingford Riegler. Most of the music from that landmark series has been recorded and enthusiastically reviewed on the Cedille and Premier labels. Mr. Salvatore also presented recitals at the National Gallery in Washington, New York’s Merkin Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, the Dame Myra Hess Series in Chicago and Los Angeles, and Detroit’s Cranbrook Series, and concertized widely abroad, giving recitals in Spain, Morocco, Scotland, and England.

==  From the Cedille Records Website  
==  Links, in this box and below, refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Being chauvinistic about Chicago and its many world-class musicians, it was a distinct pleasure to be able to speak with Ray Salvatore in February of 1991.  For the next decade, I was able to present his views and his artistry on WNIB, Classical 97, and later on WNUR, the station of Northwestern University.  We had similar goals, namely to advance the cause of American composers.

salvatore Now, almost thirty years later, I am once again pleased to be able to share his ideas and enthusiasm with new-found friends on my website . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you only play American piano music?

Ramon Salvatore:   Not at all.  It’s only been within the last five years that I’ve more or less focussed and concentrated on the American music.

BD:   Where did you get the idea to develop this special interest in American piano music?

RS:   Because so few people do anything with it.  Few pianists, that I know anyway, do much with contemporary music, let alone American music, and it’s important that we search into areas of the repertoire that most listeners, or many listeners anyway, are not familiar with at all.

BD:   So you’re making a specialty of this?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Paul Freeman.]

RS:   At this point, it seems to be the case.  Over the last five years, I’ve been developing this series of programs that I’m going to be doing, and I finally decided to try to get the National Endowment for the Arts involved.  I applied for a grant, with the view to them supporting a series of three programs in New York, in the Weill Recital Hall, at Carnegie Hall, and they bought into it.  So, it gave the whole project an air of credibility.

BD:   You’re bringing the same three programs to Chicago?

RS:   Yes, which is what I’d like to talk to you about.

BD:   What are the dates and places of the recitals?

RS:   The series is going to be done in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center.  The first one is going to be on Friday afternoon, March 15th, at 12:15pm.  The second will be on Saturday, April 20th, at two o’clock, and the third on Saturday May 11th, also at two o’clock.

BD:   Will these be all music of American composers?

RS:   Yes, but not all new music.  I decided I didn’t want to get the reputation of doing only contemporary music, so I thought there has to be some good American music from before 1950.  Most people think American music sprang out after the Second World War.  But indeed, we have had a long tradition of American composers, dating right back to the Colonial period.  So I’ve decided to search for some of the better pieces from before 1900, and close to the turn of the century as well, and I’ve come up with a few good selections.  There is something for everybody on these programs.

BD:   When you see a piece of music, how do you decide whether it’s a better piece or a lesser piece?

RS:   [Smiles]  That’s the trick.  It’s all a question of taste, and what you may think is great, I might think is awful, and vice versa.  That’s the way it is with anybody.  It’s that way with all art, visual and aural as well.

BD:   So you’re really just giving everything an opportunity?

RS:   Yes.  I looked through a lot of music.  What I look for, mostly, is music that makes the instrument sound good, has a musical line, and has shown some thought in the way the piece has been put together.  If it deals with harmony and certain kinds of rhythms and harmonic language, those are the things I look for.

BD:   And you’re finding this in the pieces that you’re exploring?

RS:   Yes.  I found some very attractive pieces from the early part of this century, and the late part of the Nineteenth century.  Granted, it’s salon music, but it’s classy stuff, and some very attractive pieces.  Some of them have had very auspicious starts.  All of the composers whose music I’m playing were very well-known and highly respected composers of their times.  They were in the tradition of what was being written at the time.  At the turn of the century, the American composers
as were practically all composers around worldwere still in the mighty grip of the German romantics, i.e. Brahms, Wagner, and Liszt.  Most Americans studied in Germany at that time, beginning with John Knowles Paine, who was the father of the so-called ‘Second New England School’.  He set the pace for all the composers who came after him, up until about the First World War when then everybody, beginning with Copland, started to go to Paris.  Then they did that for the next thirty or forty years.

BD:   They went as long as Nadia Boulanger was there.

RS:   That’s right.  Everybody from the time before Boulanger usually went to study with Rheinberger in Munich, and most of the composers from the turn of the century
the Boston Classissists whom I’m playing, such as Paine and Chadwickhad studied abroad for some period of time, and then came back and established their wares here.  That was the international style of composition at the time.

BD:   Have we completely lost the international style of composition, or are we coming back to that now?

RS:   It
s probably coming back.  As every new generation of composers strongly reacts against the former generation, we, now as a nation, are far enough away from that generation to look back at the preceding generation to not think it so pale a reflection... and granted, some of it might be.  But we look for personality in these composers, and you might have to look for a while to find that personality.  But they have valid statements, and their music should be heard.

BD:   It always seems that we relate more to our grandparents, or are closer to our grandparents, than to our parents.

RS:   I think so, and every generation reacts as strongly against their teachers.

BD:   Are you optimistic about where American piano music is going these days?

RS:   Well, it’s always harder to see things right in our own period.  We need to see things from a distance.  Probably in fifty years it’ll be interesting to see whose music holds up.  Of the current composers I find who have wonderful imaginations, are John Corigliano
I’m doing one of his pieces in this seriesand certainly Elliott Carter’s music is very important.  It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but he’s a very well-established composer.

salvatore BD:   There are two others you are playing that we’ve featured on WNIBHunter Johnson and Robert Palmer.

RS:   Both of those composers were active before 1950, and were writing in a style that American composers were doing at that time in an effort to get away from a European influence.  They were in that first generation after Chadwick, and Paine, and Foote, although their lives did overlap to some extent.  They were trying to get away from that European domination that started with Arthur Farwell back at the turn of the century, at the behest of Dvořák, who charged American composers to look into our own culture to find suitable material for the concert hall.  Then, composers carried that on a step further
Roy Harris, Copland, and the generation of composers from that time.

BD:   [Looking over the programs]  You have a good balance of the tonal music and also the non-tonal music.

RS:   That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do.  I’ve tried to make each of these three programs have a variety of period and style, so each can stand as an entity by itself, rather than making it an academic procedure that says we’re going to start with 1820, and we’ll go to 1990.  That doesn’t make for very interesting programming.

BD:   Then, you have to pick things that fit together.

RS:   Right.  It was a bit of a juggling act, trying to find all the pieces that would work together, but I’ve come up with three fairly good programs, and should have something in each one for everybody.

BD:   These three programs you’re giving in Chicago are duplicates of the ones  you will play in New York?

RS:   Yes, absolutely.

BD:   Will you get a chance to do this series of three elsewhere?

RS:   I’m in the process now of playing all three of them at Northwestern University, and I’ve played parts of these programs over the course of the last five years
not exactly in the order that they’re going to presented there, but at lots of universities around the country.  I’ve also played part of the series in Washington in the National Gallery.

BD:   Do you find there’s good response, especially on college campuses, for this kind of programming?

RS:   Yes.  I’m bringing music that they wouldn’t normally hear.  Their faculties always play the standard repertoire, because the students need to know that repertoire.  When I was serving at a college faculty for fifteen years, I would always play standard repertoire, but there would always be something contemporary, or a little unusual piece on the program as well.  We’re confronted today with the same narrow repertoire all the time in the concert hall, so that audiences aren’t aware there is good music besides your so-called European traditional music.

BD:   Do you ever foresee the day that you’ll play the Thirty-Two Beethoven sonatas as a cycle?

RS:   I have played about half of them over the course of my lifetime, so maybe I’ll get around to the other half a little later on.  [Laughs]

BD:   I’m just wondering if that is of any real interest to you.

RS:   Oh, absolutely.  I’m certainly not going to abandon standard repertoire, not at all.  But it’s awfully hard to compete with the well-known pianists who are well-established in playing that, when I’m getting a start now.  I thought I would look into areas of the repertoire that not many people know much about, and because of that, I’ve been having a lot of chances to play, and that’s what I want to do.

*     *     *     *     *

salvatore BD:   You obviously don’t take your piano with you, so when you come to a new concert hall, how long does it take to get into the virtues and defects of each instrument?

RS:   That ease comes just over a course of a long time of playing on different instruments a lot.  When I was younger, I wanted the very same thing, but as I get older, I know what to do on an instrument that’s stiff.  I know what to do on an instrument that doesn’t have a singing top.  I know what to do with an instrument that is sort of tubby.  There are certain things, certain ways to adjust your technique in order to make balances work, and colors work, and tempi work, depending on what the instrument does.  You also have to be very comfortable with the music you’re playing, so you can be flexible with that in the process of adjusting to each new instrument.

BD:   Does that ever enter into your choice of repertoire?  If you know a piece wouldn’t work on all pianos, do you decide not to do that one?

RS:   Yes.  Some music, like the Copland Fantasy, needs a very bright beefy instrument, especially in the low bass, because he has tremendous power that needs to be sustained over long stretches of slow moving measures, and long pedals.  You also need a very brilliant crystalline top for that detached, chatting, non-legato music that Copland has.  So, I certainly wouldn’t play that on a smaller instrument if I could possibly have a chance not to.

BD:   Are most of the instruments you encounter at least up to a certain standard?

RS:   Oh yes.  Most college campuses have fairly adequate instruments, and the concert halls that I play in certainly have better-than-average instruments as well, and usually they are very well kept up.  Technicians have always been there to give me a hand, and to see how things are working.

BD:   Are you still teaching now?

RS:   Yes.  I teach privately, and I also teach for the Merit Music Program, which is a tuition-free conservatory for gifted students here in the Chicago area, in the old Dearborn Street Station at Dearborn and Polk, just south of Printer
s Row.  We have about 400 students that come in and out of that place every week.  It’s very active, and it’s unique to the city because it’s all tuition-free for these kids who come there on Saturdays.

BD:   So they enter by audition?

RS:   Yes, they’re selected, and we have an orchestra, band, chorus, private lessons, ensembles.  You name it, it’s all there.  It’s a real conservatory for these kids, grades four through to twelve.

BD:   Are these kids going to go to college and major in music, or are they going to be music consumers rather than performers?

RS:   Both.  I would assume most of them would be music consumers, but we have some very gifted students who have gone into music as a major in college.  We have two or three scholarships every year to Interlochen, and we get college recruiters coming through, seeing what’s around, because this is the time where music schools are looking for good students.

BD:   Then you’re optimistic about what you hear coming back from the fingers of your students?

RS:   Yes.  It always takes a while to see the fruits of your labor come forth.  I’ve been working with them for about four years, and it’s a real pleasure working with them.  They’ve gotten to a level where they know what I expect.  They’re used to me, and I’m used to them, and it’s fun to teach them.

salvatore BD:   Do you ever demand too much?

RS:   I’m trying to be realistic about it.  If I find the student is particularly gifted, I’ll sit on them a little bit more, and expect a little bit more, and see just how far we can go.  You have to do it gradually, though... apply the pressure, and expect a little more, and have the student raise her own standards by your own encouragement.

BD:   Is there a lot of pressure being a concert pianist?

RS:   It’s mostly the pressure we put on ourselves, because we have our own standards that we never attain, but something we strive for.  I don’t like to listen to my own tapes, because I hear nothing but everything I don’t like about them.  [Laughs]  All I hear are those glaring things I don’t like.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But then you’ve missed the ninety-eight per cent that’s really very good.

RS:   Well, I guess!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Returning to the previous topic]  What advice do you have for young pianists coming along who want to make the big career?

RS:   Wow, that’s a tough question.  First of all, there has to be a tremendous passion.  Not only that, but a tremendous energy by any person who’s willing to do it.  They also have to develop a hide like an elephant, because they’re going to get hit over the head all the time.  They’re going to get knocked down all the time, but they have to keep getting up and going back, and getting more and taking more.  Eventually, if they keep at it long enough, they should go forth and go through with it.  It’s a difficult thing to say.  If a student can be talked out of the being a musician, he should be talked out of it.  I always say that if a person wants to make money, don
t go into music.  But if you want to make music, go for it.

BD:   So it’s just the few that can’t be talked out of it who should continue?

RS:   Yes.

BD:   Is it all worth it in the end?

RS:   Absolutely!  I wouldn’t trade anything that I’m doing now for anything else.  It’s a tremendous satisfaction being able to do these things.  I’m always treated to a pleasure of hearing people who have not heard the music that I play.  They come to say that they didn’t realize that there was this kind of music written by Americans, that’s not only accessible but pretty and attractive.  That’s the kind of music I’ve been looking for over the course of this journey
something that’s accessible.  There are a few pieces in this series that are going to be a bit demanding.  The Copland Fantasy certainly demands a lot from the listeners, but I’ve juxtaposed it with some very attractive, almost ‘Chopinesque’ music by John Knowles Paine.  So each program has a few hard nuts to crack, but a few easy chestnuts as well that should be enjoyable for them.

BD:   Since you personally deal with a few composers, what advice do you have for them, or for others who want to write music for the piano?

RS:   Most of the composers I’ve been dealing with are also pianists, so they know the vagaries of the piano, and how to write for the instrument.  A person who wants to write needs to know how the instrument is.  Most of the composers that I have dealt with, who are not familiar with other instruments, always seek out performers on those instruments to ask what they can do.  Coriglaino has done that with trombone players and other brass players.  He’s asked what effects can they do because he wants to incorporate those kinds of things into his music.  As far as keyboard writing goes, just make sure you don’t make your stretches more than a tenth!  [Both laugh]  Don’t give me seven- or eight-note chords in one hand!  Don’t expect me to crescendo on a given a note.  Things like that are virtually impossible to do, but otherwise we can pretty much do anything.

BD:   [Pushing the boundaries a bit]  What about someone who says they have a Kurzweil at home, and it sounds just like a piano?  They turn a knob, and get a crescendo.

RS:   Then go into the electronic things.  When writing for acoustic instruments, you have to really know what that’s all about first.

BD:   Do you resent the ads on television that say,
Learn to play the piano in twenty minutes!?

RS:   If it could be done, I’d be the first in line to start teaching that way.  I just don’t think that’s really possible, and I don’t know anybody else who thinks they can do it.  The human body hasn’t changed over these last million years, and it takes a lifetime to achieve virtuosity in control of an instrument.  There’s no way that’s going to happen in less time to be a real master of what you’re doing.

BD:   When you play the piano, are you really in control of the instrument?

RS:   I try to be.  Sometimes it gets the better of me, and I’m sure most pianists say that as well.  Sometimes you find yourself fighting the instrument.  You have to know how to control it, and how to relax into these things.  The audience tensions also may or may not bring the best out of you at that particular moment.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience every time you sit down to play?

RS:   At the beginning I think so.  After the first piece or two, the audience reacts.  They warm up, and then the interaction becomes much more of a feeling.  One’s playing oftentimes takes on a different perspective because of an audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Looking over some of the printed material about these concerts]  Tell me a bit about Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861).

He was called the Beethoven of America!  [Both laugh]  [Referring to his Variations on Yankee Doodle]  That you’ve got to hear.  It’s the most outrageous piece, rather crude as a composition, but everybody gets the biggest kick out of hearing it.  I’ve got some Chicago-born composers on there, too... David Burge comes from Evanston, and is a Northwestern graduate.  He now teaches at Eastman, and has been there for a long time.

burge David Russell Burge (March 25, 1930 – April 1, 2013) was an American pianist, conductor and composer. As a performer, he was noted for championing contemporary pieces. The New York Times called him "one of America's important pianists," and his concerts were described as "an overwhelming experience" (Washington Post) presenting "masterful artistry" (Baltimore Sun).

Burge was born in Evanston, Illinois. He studied at Northwestern University for his bachelor's and master's degrees. Later he attained the Doctor of Musical Arts degree and an artist's diploma from the Eastman School of Music, and he studied at the Cherubini Conservatory, Florence as a Fulbright scholar.

While on the faculty at the University of Colorado in Boulder during the 1960s and 1970s, Burge founded and directed the Colorado Festival of Contemporary Music, and he was also Musical Director and Conductor of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

[Photo at right shows Burge (left, at the keyboard) with Meyer Kupferman at a recording session in August 1992 of Kupferman's The Shadows of Jerusalem. Photo credit: Milken Family Foundation.]

During that period, George Crumb collaborated with Burge while writing Makrokosmos, a series of four volumes of pieces for piano. Makrokosmos, Volume I was composed in 1972 for Burge, who had previously commissioned and premiered Crumb's Five Pieces for Piano (1962). The Nonesuch recording of Makrokosmos, Vol. I was nominated for a Grammy. Burge also worked with composers such as Ernst Krenek, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and singers including Cathy Berberian and Bethany Beardslee.

After leaving the University of Colorado, he chaired the Piano Department at the Eastman School of Music for many years. Over his career, he gave more than 1,000 concerts in the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, composed more than 100 works, authored the book Twentieth-Century Piano Music (Shirmer Books, 1990), wrote prize-winning columns for Keyboard Magazine, Clavier and The Piano Quarterly.

In 1993, Burge moved to San Diego with his wife, Liliane Choney, and served as composer-in-residence for the San Diego Ballet. His ballet scores became increasingly well known outside the San Diego area, with over thirty performances in the United States and abroad.

In early 2002, Burge and Crumb were appointed to a joint residency at Arizona State University. He accepted visiting professorships not only at many universities and conservatories in the United States but also in Denmark, Turkey, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Korea.

Others who come from the Chicago area are John Alden Carpenter, and John La Montaine.  John Knowles Paine, and Chadwick, and Foote all had Chicago contacts, because they had pieces either commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, or by the Columbian Exposition a hundred years ago.  Paine and Chadwick both had pieces performed there.  In that period, orchestras really supported contemporary composers on a regular basis, not just a bone tossed now and then like we have today.  Performers and composers and audiences are really wide apart these days. Composers and performers used to be one and the same, as you know, but now they’re even despairing.  Many performers simply don’t like a lot of music that is being written.  It doesn’t make the instrument sound good.  They don’t have an affinity for that style, so they don’t play it.

BD:   In your quest for all of this, are you finding a couple of living composers to champion?

RS:   Yes, there’s a lot of fine music going on out there.  I’ve discovered that I’m finding myself liking more of the older generation of composers who are active, who had their styles established before 1950, such as Robert Palmer, Hunter Johnson, and John La Montaine.  These are the older generation of composers, but they all wrote so well for the instrument.  It makes it sound good, with wonderful climaxes.  I love to have music that has big surges like that in it.  I’ve played those kinds of pieces....

BD:   ...but I guess you would never play a piece by Philip Glass?

RS:   [Sighs]  I mean no offense to anyone who likes it, but I’m not that fond of minimalism, especially on the piano.  The piece that I’m doing of John Corigliano does have minimalist techniques in it, but it’s very controlled, and he says specifically that he doesn’t want the performer to make too many repetitions of those little cells of music.  He gives you a limitation of how long he wants the piece to be, so you have to figure out what you’re going to do to fill that timespan through the repetitions.  He said that he’s heard performances that have gone from something like ten minutes through to eighteen or twenty minutes for the same piece.  In this Fantasia on an Ostinato, which is inspired after the second movement of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, the ostinato figure is all through that.  It’s an effective piece, and audiences enjoy hearing it.

BD:   Have you ever commissioned a work?

RS:   Yes, I’ve commissioned a couple of works... one from Philip Ramey, a toccata that’s going to receive its New York premiere, and I have played it in Chicago once at the New Music Festival a couple of years ago.  I also commissioned the Third Sonata of Robert Palmer in 1979.  It’s nice to be active, and give life to the first time of new music.  I enjoyed that.

BD:   Did you make any stipulations about the commission, or just say to write a piece?

RS:   Absolutely nothing.  I’ve got a little gimmick with encores that I’m doing.  John Kirkpatrick did a lot of contemporary music all through his life.  [John Kirkpatrick (18 March 1905 – 8 November 1991) was an American classical pianist and music scholar, best known for championing the works of Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Carl Ruggles, and Roy Harris. He gave the first complete public performance of Ives
Concord Sonata in 1939, which became a turning point in the composers public recognition. At the time of his death Kirkpatrick was a professor emeritus at Yale University, where he had also been the curator of the Charles Ives archives.]  He was really a pioneer in American music during the 1940s, and he set a harmonization to an unaccompanied melody of Stephen Foster, called Anadolia.  It’s from the Social Orchestra of 1853, sort of an after supper, family kind of music for amateurs.  It is written for Foster’s own instrument, the flute, and is a cross between a Bellini aria and Old Folks at Home.  It’s a lovely little thirty-two bar piece.  Kirkpatrick set a very traditional harmonization of the piece that I’ve used as an encore.  I thought this would be nice to link the Nineteenth with the Twentieth century, and invite some living composers to set the same melody, unchanged if possible, in their own harmonic language.

salvatore BD:   You’re going to build up your own Diabelli Variations!

RS:   Exactly right, and that’s exactly what I wrote to these composers, saying,
Just think of yourself being confronted with Diabelli’s waltz, because the piece is sort of silly.  It’s got a lovely little melody and a little shape to it, but certainly nothing very profound, just bare 1, 4, 5, basic harmonies, a couple of secondary dominants, and that’s about it.  I’ve gotten a couple of very interesting accompaniments.  Philip Ramey has made a real piece out of this thing.  It’s a paraphrase, and Robert Palmer has given me a beautifully wrought version that doesn’t change one note of the melody at all, yet you hear this very spicy accompaniment, that takes the sweetness out of the tune, but still it’s there.  So I’m playing those as encores, and enjoying it.

BD:   Do you do any writing yourself?

RS:   No, no, I don’t compose at all.  There’s enough bad music already!

BD:   Should we only hear good music?

RS:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s generally what we do here, we hear great music.  That’s what we’ll hear in the concert halls.  The music I’m playing, by many of these composers that are from the turn of the century, are not great composers but they are very good composers.  They are serious craftsmen, or were serious craftsmen.  They took their work seriously, and although it is not of the highest caliber that ranks with Chopin, and Bach, and Mozart, and Beethoven, nonetheless their music shows careful consideration, and carefully worked-out themes and ideas.  It certainly deserves to be heard, and while a person may not want to make a steady diet of it, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be exposed, and shouldn’t be given an occasional airing.  That’s what I’ve tried to do here.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to one of these three programs, or any program that you play?

RS:   An open-mind, especially for some of the contemporary things.  As I mentioned, the Copland Fantasy is a tough nut to crack.  I’ve got an early set of variations of Elie Siegmeister that comes from 1932 , and sounds like it has the same harmonic language as the Copland.  Even today, that’s a hard work for people to enjoy.

BD:   Where should the balance be between the enjoyment value and an artistic achievement?

RS:   As far as audiences are concerned, I don’t want them only to be entertained, which they will be with some of the traditionally-sounding music.  I want them to have a bit of an education, to also hear some of our other lesser-known composers that are no longer living but still are important historically.  Anthony Philip Heinrich was one of the most important composers from the pre-Civil War era, yet we don’t know his name at all anymore.  He was one of the first American romantics.  He was also one of the first to use Indian melodies in his music, long before 
Dvořák told people to start looking inward.  He was a real nationalist composer.  Nonetheless, it’s interesting music, and people get a kick out of hearing it, because they never knew that we had a Beethoven of America!  Also, historically he’s important because he was one of the founders of the New York Philharmonic.  He conducted one of the earliest known performances of a Beethoven symphony in this country, which took place in Kentucky of all places.  God only knows how that performance must have sounded...  [Both laugh]  But he also pre-dated Ives by fifty years, and composed in that kind of feeling long before anybody else did.

BD:   [Surprised]  There’s polytonality in it???

RS:   He’s got some pretty strange harmonies.  He’s written a piano sonata where he wants the performer not only to play the piano, but to sing as well.  I haven’t decided to tackle that, but some of the most knuckle-busting music imaginable Heinrich has written goes on for page after page, with black notes everywhere.

BD:   But it works?

RS:   Well, the piece I’m playing does.  It would take a person with a tremendous commitment, like Neely Bruce who has made a real study of Heinrich’s music and has recorded some of it, to make it really come to life.

BD:   Do you feel you’re in competition with other pianists?

RS:   I don’t think so.  Every pianist has something individual to say, or at least tries to.  The thing that I’m trying to do is give a new lease on life to music that people don’t get to hear.  If anybody else wants to do it, more power to them.  If I find other pianists pick up some of these pieces that I’m playing, or other music by the same composers, wow!  I’m having a little bit of an influence.  Or, if the audience will seek out some of these composers and some of their music, great.  A lot of this music is now appearing on recordings which are gradually coming into the catalogue with pristine new performances.  Just a couple of years ago, both the Paine symphonies had been recorded by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic.  Gunther Schuller made a tremendous commitment to the music of John Knowles Paine way back in the
70s, before it became fashionable to look into these things.  The Chadwick symphonies have been recorded, as well as his chamber music.  Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, as she preferred to be called, is getting known because lots of her music is now appearing on disc.  Virgil Thomson’s music has somewhat been around.  Wallingford Riegger is another very important composer and teacher.  The piece that I’m playing of his, The Blue Voyage, is from the late 1920s, before he got into the twelve-tone writing.  It is rather impressionistic, with wonderful climaxes, and a lush impressionistic rhapsodic style.  I also give nod to the 60s with Three Short Fantasies of Yehudi Wyner who embraced the twelve-tonal idea that was fashionable during the 50s and 60s.  So, I’m not excluding different styles from this series.  The Copland Fantasy is based on a tone row, also.  There’s some impressionistic stuff, and there’s some overtly romantic music on the series.

BD:   One last question.  Is playing the piano fun?

RS:   Yes!  It’s a lot of fun.  Once you get to a certain point, when you’re not having to worry about technical difficulties, it is a lot of fun.  It’s always more fun to do it than it is to listen to it... although I love to listen.  I love to hear other good pianists play.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

RS:   Thank you very much.  The composers who I’ve contacted and shown the program to, have commented on the freshness of the repertoire, and the fact that they’ve not heard any of these pieces before.  So, it makes me feel that the work I’ve been doing has some validity to it.  They’re glad to see that American composers are being given a little bit of attention, as they should be.  I’m becoming nationalistic in my old age, and it’s important that we bring out our own music.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 16, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and again in 1994 and 1999; and on WNUR in 2011 and 2012.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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, 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 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.