Gary Graffman – keeping fascinated with discovery

When the esteemed pianist Radu Lupo fell ill and a replacement had to be found for his People’s Symphony Concert recital at Town Hall, on January 12th, 2014, the series’ presenter, Frank Solomon chose Kuok-Wai Lio, a young pianist largely unknown to New Yorker audiences, in lieu of the legendary maestro. Lio came equipped not only with a formidable stylistic approach to the romantic repertoire, not unlike Lupo’s own, lucide pianism, but with recommendations from presenters of his previous recitals as well; Lio’s performances, especially his Schubert and Schumann interpretations had gained him high regards. The fact that Lio was a talented student of Gary Graffman was certainly another worthy credential, the kind that opens doors to the pianistic performance stage. After all, Graffman; President and Director of the Curtis Institute of Music for over two decades with a famed reputation as pianist and pedagogue, under whose tutelage some of today’s international pianistic super-stars: Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, and Haochen Zhang have emerged, may very well intersperse his magic in the making of yet another prodigal pianist.

Photo: Gary Graffman  Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical

Lio’s performance, albeit starting out a little timid, gained increasingly in momentum as he took the historic town hall stage and its audience with his lyrical and eloquent interpretations of Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D.935 and Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündler-Tänze, Op.6. As he admitted winningly, he had “giant shoes to fill,” substituting for the much admired Radu Lupo- the  distinguished poet of the keyboard-  whom he described with reverence as a ‘pianistic god’, on a short time notice.”I grew up listening to, and loving his recordings,” he said, and while Lio did not, as he explained, have ample time to prepare mentally – he was called upon just two days prior to the concert – he offered:”In a way you have to be always ready.”

Photo: Kuok-Wai Lio  Ilona Oltuski-GetClassical

His bi-monthly lessons with Graffman, Lio describes in comparison with his previous experiences in his native Hong Kong, as a different, but formidable learning experience. “While it was all about discipline in Hong Kong, it became all about freedom at Curtis,” he says and describes Graffman, as “one of the most supportive and encouraging teachers, one could imagine,” stressing the fact that Graffman does not imply that his ways are the only possible truth to consider. Rather, Graffman instills a confidence in his pupils, giving them the tools to develop their own voice and the courage to trust their judgment. This approach is supported by introducing them to a variety of teachers, and different methods and styles. “Still it’s hard to find a balance, sometimes,” says Lio, as he remembers his last year at Curtis, when he worked excessively and Graffman saved him from pushing himself too hard, by saying:”You don’t have to play as if you perform it tonight.” Equally important for the successful learning process is the fact that Graffman himself is a superb pianist, whose authority comes from the greatest of the pianistic tradition, seemingly interwoven with his persona. A prodigal student of Curtis’ own Isabella Vengerova and later Vladimir Horowitz, Graffman had befriended a slew of musicians, examining the traditions of the Golden Age of the piano first hand, and attended concerts by the likes of Hofmann, Rachmaninoff and Kapell. What stands out in Lio’s descriptions of Graffman is his joy de vivre; his enthusiasm for anything new and different and his uplifting spirit and optimism:”These are essential qualities an artist and mentor should have,” says Lio, “he personifies that boundlessness of spirit, and if you let him inspire you, you feel as if there is nothing you cannot do” – in the hands of great talent no small thing to empower.

As Gary Graffman and his wife, Naomi, come backstage to see Lio after the concert, it becomes clear how personally involved the Graffmans are with Gary’s students’ lives, beyond their careers. Graffman continuously keeps in touch with all of his students, past and present, keeps up with lessons and attends many of their concerts. Remarkable is the loyalty some of his star- pupils maintain, which includes his close connection to Lang Lang, who, irritated by the fact that his great mentor was out of sync with the latest technology, had just recently provided him the latest cell phone model. “They all call, text or email,” he says. The Graffman’s elegantly curated residence on West 57th Street, houses an expansive art collection, boasting a conglomerate of Asian artifacts of varying geographical regions and historic provenance, and equipped with a professionally grade bar, often hosts ‘his musicians’ and visiting performers after a concert performance across the street, at Carnegie Hall, including Yuja Wang and artists like Evgeny Kissin. Quite the charmer, Graffman, while mixing drinks behind the counter of his bar, shares some anecdotes about his family’s heritage, his pianistic legacy and his worldwide travel- and teaching experiences that kept his spirits high, even after his performance career had come to an abrupt halt. Similarly to his colleague, the esteemed pianist, turned conductor and pedagogue Leon Fleisher in 1964, Graffman, in 1979, suffered an affliction to his right hand’s extensor muscles with the ring finger and the two small fingers weakening and curling with uncontrollable spasms, which prevented the continuation of a pianistic career based on two-hand repertoire. The condition also generally known as focal dystonia became a major game changer within the pianist’s life, when it became clear that merely changing fingerings within scores would not suffice and Graffman had to adjust his life, affording a great deal of courage, vision, and humility, and his ability to see the positive in things:”At that point it looked like it was the end of the world, but it turned out it was ok,” he says. “Otherwise I would have never become the head of Curtis,” he adds; and he certainly would not have established one of the greatest legacies as a mentor for the next generation of pianists, many of whom do not only admire him for giving on the treasures of a great pianistic tradition but for opening their minds for the significance of culture in our civilization in general. Yuja Wang was impressed how much she was able to absorb from Graffman’s great knowledge about her own, Chinese culture, coming as a young girl to Curtis. (see my article about Yuja Wang )

In his auto-biography Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story Lang Lang describes in great detail, how Graffman’s mentorship was always geared to address and inspire the whole person, not just the pianist in him; an experience he truly treasured and that stayed with him. Graffman especially fostered individuality in his students, avoiding the pitfall of sameness in sound or manirism, as a result of rigid teaching formulas. To him, each of his students plays unique, with a distinct expression recognizable as their own. Graffman’s own fascination with Asian culture may have been – as he calls it – an innate interest. “When going to a museum, they would always loose me in one of the Indian, Japanese or Chinese Galleries, “he recalls, “I literally got lost there – they had to come back for me. Later, when we moved to this apartment, my good friend the pianist Julius Katchen, who lived in Paris, married to a Vietnamese-born French woman, had started collecting Asian art during his concert tours and had put me on to it. At the time, there were only 3 major antique shops in Paris, dealing with Asian Art, it was inexpensive and I bought and bought. After my hand problems had started, I got more involved and wanted to learn more, taking courses at Columbia University. In 1981 I went for the first time on a Far East group excursion. At that time the Chinese started to welcome such groups, and we would go to remote areas within the Hunan and Szechuan provinces. When a good friend of mine became the director of Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, I would visit and get tours with the experts, seeing the best pieces, not just what was on display in the windows,” says Graffman, who does not seem to have lost any of his great sense of a worthy find – discovering something special that may be worth one’s while, interest and dedication.

Honoring his pianistic legacy, Sony has released the complete recordings of Gary Graffman in October, 2013, on the occasion of his 85th Birthday. His auto-biography I really should be practicing, is available here.

Ilona Oltuski – GetClassical

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