In addition to its great joys, the Gilmore Keyboard Festival (gilmore.org) reminds me of the tremendous pressures on pianists, especially young pianists, where the jury remains always out until he or she achieves the status of being an "established" artist. In particular, watching young pianists reminds me of Coleman Blumfield and of one of the few times I lost my place while playing in public.
Sometime in the early 1960s, Blumfield played a recital in Flint, Michigan, where my family moved in 1959 and where I went to high school. We had left a very small town in New York State that was far removed from cities that had movie theaters, let alone concert venues. Flint was an exciting place for a person like me. Artists of major stature--Caesare Siepi, Leontyne Price), Gary Graffman--came to Flint, as did Coleman Blumfield, a young pianist who had studied with Vladimir Horowitz. Now, there is a story in that, of course, because Horowitz later claimed he only had three students, (Byron Janis, Ronald Tourini, and Gary Graffman)--and Blumfield was not one of them. But more of that in a subsequent post.
Blumfield's first program in Flint reflected Horowitz's influence by including works of Scarlatti, Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and by concluding with Horowitz's transcription of John Phillip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever as the final encore.
If you follow this link, you can see (after an ad) Mike Wallace coax Horowitz into playing part of his transcription--http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/12-26-77-vladimir-horowitz
And here is a link to Horowitz playing his entire transcription http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uNh3Um7LaM
The trick in the Horowitz transcription, as in much of Liszt, is to give the illusion that the pianist has three hands--something that becomes dramatically clear in the last section when the piccolo part dances above the famous theme--the part of the transcription that makes it unplayable for someone like me.
To return to Blumfield (notice how once Horowitz is introduced, he dominates everything), Blumfield's recital was the first where I experienced a standing ovation, something that happens at almost any classical recital or concert today, but something which at the time I saw Blumfield seemed rare and only happened if--as in Blumfield's playing of the Horowitz transcription--the force of the playing made standing and applauding impossible to resist.
After his first recital in Flint, Blumfield became artist-in-residence for Flint and spent a year or so living in the city and--among other things--conducting master classes. Since my teacher was a significant figure in the music community, he encouraged me to play in these master classes. In the first of those, I played a piece--"Poetry"-- from a suite of pieces--The Household Muse--by the French composer, Darius Milhaud, a member of Les Six and with Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honnegger, the only one whose music is still played on a regular basis. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-4215rCAN0
In those days, one played only from memory. Although "Poetry" is a dreamy piece, not overly difficult, except for requiring a sustained and delicate touch, it is somewhat susceptible to the pianist's losing a sense of place should the mind wander. And for whatever reason, my mind wandered until I realized that playing on a nine-foot Steinway in front of an audience that included a "master teacher" who had studied with Horowitz, I had no idea where I was in this little piece.
When he would do comic versions of a disaster striking a performer, Victor Borge would say, "We shall go on as though nothing has happened." And the theory is that one should never make an audience nervous--and nothing makes an audience more nervous than the sense that the performer might be in trouble. So pianists are taught early on not to stop no matter what, but to keep playing something, even if one is only improvising. The trick is to make the improvisation sound enough like the piece one can't remember to provide the audience with the illusion that "nothing is happening"--at least nothing that should make the audience nervous.
But when playing in a master class before an artists who not only knows the music, but has the score in front of him--what should one do? While improvising and simultaneously trying to pick up the thread of where I was in the piece, I toyed with the idea of stopping and announcing the obvious--namely, that I was lost--but decided instead to keep going. Finally, Blumfield announced over my playing that I was lost (which, of course, I knew) and stopped the agony and began a critique of what I had remembered.
I no longer remember much of what Blumfield said about my playing that day, but the experience taught me the following:
1. One can survive public embarrassments.
2. Sometimes, whatever decision one makes, it will be the wrong one--had I stopped, Blumfield might have said that I should have continued "as though nothing had happened"; but as it turned out, trying to bluff was not the right decision.
3. An audience is surprisingly sympathetic to a performer, more so than I expected at the time.
4. And, finally, working toward a goal--in this case being able to play the music of Darius Milhaud--is worth the effort, even if one sometimes wanders around on the way there.
But an amateur pianist working toward the goal of playing a relatively easy piece is different far from young artists--such as a Coleman Blumfield--building a credible and long career.