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Flying to the Temple of the Owl

Posted on: May 31st, 2016 by SDB No Comments


It gives me great pleasure to announce that I have joined the distinguished piano faculty of Temple University’s Boyer School of Music and Dance, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In September I will return to the United States, eagerly awaiting my first meeting with the Temple University mascot, Stella the Owl (seen here).

The Canadian chapter of my life has been a richly rewarding one, emotionally and artistically. My spouse Kayoko and I will miss our many dear friends in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and in nearby Hawai’i which has been a veritable second home as well. But we are excited to return to the indelible history and cosmopolitan culture of the American east coast, where I grew up and spent my formative years. Looking forward to a renewed and vigorous musical presence in the cities of Boston, Providence, New Haven, Hartford, New York, Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington DC, Norfolk and beyond.

I will continue to perform throughout Canada (where I am a Dual Citizen), in addition to my concert activity in the USA, Latin America, Europe and Asia. Trusting that Stella’s sturdy guidance will smooth the trails ahead. Or, as the Temple University alma mater states: “Wisdom, Truth and Virtue / built our Temple great / Perseverance conquers / higher to create.”

Reynaldo Reyes (♰14 February 2016)

Posted on: February 15th, 2016 by SDB No Comments


Reynaldo Reyes, the brilliant Filipino virtuoso who taught me the piano in my first ten years, aged 6 to 16 — taking me from C-D-E to Islamey — passed away on the evening of Valentine’s Day. Last year I wrote about Reynaldo at the time of his retirement celebration (“The Cosmo Man”), and here you can read a complete obituary, prepared by his wife and edited by myself.

Donations in Reynaldo’s memory can be made to:
c/o PNC Bank
409 Washington Avenue, Towson MD 21204 (USA)

I was fortunate to be with Reynaldo in his final days, and a family relative took this photograph of our interlocked hands. It will suffice for now, to tell in image what cannot be expressed in words — the depth of a musical bond which can never be broken.


The Hour of Parting

Posted on: January 1st, 2016 by SDB 1 Comment

with Dal Richards at the Vancouver Pacific National Exhibition
(September 2011)

The New Year of 2016 begins on the somber note of the passing last evening of bandleader Dal Richards (1918 – 2015), often referred to as “Canada’s King of Swing.”

Dal led one of North America’s foremost swing bands on an unparalleled run of nearly eight decades, playing for many years in the Hotel Vancouver’s Panorama Room (whose broadcasts were heard coast to coast), for 67 summers at the Vancouver Pacific National Exhibition, at innumerable New Year’s celebrations and Christmas parties and weddings, including my own. He was admitted to the Order of Canada and the Order and British Columbia, was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, and inducted into the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame. Musical joy, personal optimism, infectious good humor, boundless energy and joie de vivre seemed to follow Dal Richards as often as he smiled, which was constantly.

Dal’s obituary on the CBC website can be read here, but it does scant justice to the experience of meeting the man, hearing him sing the great popular classics of the 1930s and 1940s in warm buttery tones, or playing the saxophone in a manner that defined “mellow.” Dal’s way with “Where or When,” “As Time Goes By” and his band’s signature theme “The Hour of Parting,” was peerless. At my own wedding in 2006, I was startled to hear the Dal Richards Orchestra launch into Richard Whiting’s “Japanese Sandman” — one of my favorite dance tunes because of its charmingly naïve invocation of Japanese serenity. After dancing with Kayoko in rapt joy, I asked Dal when he had last played the song. “Oh, I can’t even remember… probably the 1930s,” he chuckled. Regardless, he had the chart and the parts on hand, saved up for just the right occasion. That’s but one small story of a musician who plied his trade at the top level of professionalism.

I once asked Dal if he could recount what might have been his most important appearance. I anticipated his recalling some evening at New York’s Hotel Astor or the Los Angeles Palladium, jamming with Benny Goodman or Bing Crosby. But without a pause, he replied “Why, the gig I’m doing right now.” I’ve stolen that line from Dal, and recount it often to my students, too.

With typically perfect timing, Dal Richards left us just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. No doubt he was called to an important venue for a New Year’s concert we can only imagine. Fortunately Dal has left us a large legacy of recordings to ensure that his music here will never have an Hour of Parting.


The Cosmo Man

Posted on: April 19th, 2015 by SDB No Comments

Reynaldo Reyes at the piano, in traditional Filipino barong tagalog


20 April 2015

Last weekend I had the privilege of being part of Towson University’s 50th Anniversary Retirement Celebration for Filipino pianist Reynaldo Reyes, who has been an integral part of that institution, and musical life in Baltimore, for a half-century. Mr. Reyes was my musical father. He taught me to play the piano, during the crucial formative years of my life (ages 5 to 16) — taking me from Leila Fletcher’s Book One all the way to Balakirev’s Islamey. But that fact by itself merely hints at a mentoring relationship of extraordinary generosity, creativity and vitality. Indeed, when I try to describe Reynaldo Reyes, the words that emerge are all from the world of music — brioso, con fuoco, molto energio ma sempre espressivo and, to quote from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 101, mit der Innigsten Empfindung.

He was born into the broiler of the Pacific World War, in a time and place of extreme hardship. That his mother was able to procure an upright piano in his native Phillipine village of Alitagtag, was a miracle; Reynaldo’s weekly 6-mile barefoot walks with his sister to and from their early piano lessons was a second miracle; and the survival of young Reynaldo, his family, and even the family instrument yet a third miracle — for the Japanese occupying force burned his town to the ground upon their retreat in the closing chaotic time of the Great War, not long before atomic weapons visited destruction upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite all of this, Reynaldo learned to master the piano with such brilliance that he was sent on a Philippine government scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire for study with the great pianists Marguerite Long (1874-1966), Jean Doyen (1907-1982) and Jacques Février (1900-1979).

Among Rey’s graduating prizes in Paris were Grand Prix in sight-reading and solfège — necessary skills much-neglected by pianists these days — and he is without question the greatest score- and sight-reader I have ever witnessed. After coming to Baltimore in 1958, he worked with Mieczyslaw Münz (1900-1976), an important disciple of Ferruccio Busoni; and he brought me to play for Münz also, when I was still a teenager.

Reynaldo Reyes racked up a fine shelf of international piano competition awards including 2nd Prize in the Busoni Competition of 1962. He could have easily pursued the career of a touring virtuoso. But he chose instead to make Baltimore his home base, to the good fortune of the many generations of pianists who have thrived under his tutelage, fellow musicians who have shared in his wonderful chamber collaborations, and audiences in the Baltimore – Washington area where his name is well-known. I was as inspired by his many recitals (encompassing the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Debussy’s Préludes and Études, Chopin’s Scherzi, Ballades and Préludes, the complete Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, the Variation works of Brahms, and transcriptions of every stripe imaginable), as I was by his magnificent pedagogy. On stage his technical wizardry and personal passion just sizzled.

It was Busoni’s philosophy of the piano that hovered over my decade of lessons — the piano as instrument for the greatest possible realization of the composer’s intentions and poetic message. Whether executing the manifold Baroque ornamentations of a Bach Suite, untangling technical knots in Liszt’s Études, or coloring the pointillistic imagery of Debussy’s Préludes, Mr. Reyes always kept my sights focused on the discovery and ultimate sharing of the composers’ emotions with my audience. It mattered not whether that was an audience of one, in my teacher’s studio, or an audience of thousands in a large concert hall. I learned that music is a communicative art of the utmost obligation and importance.

He is the most cosmopolitan of men, and it is that aspect of his personality that I recall fondly, when recounting the time of my studies. In the course of our frequent and long lessons, his office phone would ring, to be answered in any number of languages with which Rey was fluent — English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Tagalog, Greek (he seemed to have a good working knowledge of Russian, Japanese and other tongues as well) — his conversations ever laced with bounteous good humor and an infectious laugh. From his appreciation of all the worlds’ countries and cultures, Reynaldo instilled in me a profound admiration for the sheer vastness of the human experience. And in turn I acquired a similar thirst for the bountiful literature written for our instrument, the piano, which only continues to grow without end.

It is hard for any child to speak of their own parents without sentimental attachment, and so it is for myself with Reynaldo Reyes. My own remarks given at his retirement concert can be read below, and they contain some cherished personal narratives. I hope you enjoy them, and join me in saluting a remarkable musician of wondrous scope, vision, energy and spiritual inspiration. Fifty years and counting, Reynaldo Reyes… the Cosmo Man.

Reyes Retirement Speech by SDB (4.11.2015)


Souvenir de Porto Rico

Posted on: March 27th, 2015 by SDB 5 Comments


San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 March 2015

En la plaza del Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico

I’ve spent the last week of my life immersed in the splendor of Puerto Rican sunshine and hospitality, preparing for concerts this weekend with the magnificent Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico at the Sala Sinfónica Pablo Casals, under the baton of one of my favorite conductors, Maximiano Valdés (we are playing the Mozart Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491). Though I’ve been housed in a typical luxury hotel full of American tourists, I’ve had little time for the beach or mojitos. There have been practice hours, of course, rehearsals, and my favorite activity of all, digging into the musical culture of this beautiful tropical paradise.

Souvenir de Porto Rico is the title of one of the greatest piano showpieces of American composer-pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869), an evocative mini-drama subtitled “March of the Gibaros,” referring to Spanish-Indian natives of Puerto Rico’s forested interior. Gottschalk was remarkably prescient in his ability to incorporate proto-rag and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his piano music. And his pianistic adaptations found adherents in Latin America, perhaps most notably in two masters of the Caribbean Danza – Ignacio Cervantes (Cuban, 1847 – 1905) and Juan Morel Campos (Puerto Rican, 1857 – 1896).

The Danzas of Juan Morel Campos are among the most notoriously obscure piano scores of all, and thus it was with relish that I made my interest in this music clear upon my arrival in San Juan. In just a matter of days, the kind librarian of the Orquesta Sinfónica had obtained for me copies of five rare volumes of Campos’ music, originally published by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in 1958. My kind of souvenir!

My hotel desktop — Danzas, San Juan map, and hand-rolled robusto cigars

Playing through the 100 Danzas in these volumes over the past few days has been a fascinating experience. Firstly, how can one not be enchanted by the effusive titles of these rhythmic masterpieces — La niña bonita, ¡No me toques! and ¡Si te toco! (a pair), Sueño de amor, Sin tí Jamás, El gato flaco, and the like. Though Campos’ style is less windingly contrapuntal than Cervantes’, he freely indulges in complex cross-rhythms of 3 vs. 4 vs. 6 which must be felt in the belly, not parsed in the brain. So to say, one cannot play Puerto Rican Danzas without dancing. ¡Así bailar!

The icing on my pastel Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican cake) was a visit yesterday to the spectacular Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico. In addition to two large buildings replete with offices, practice rooms, a beautiful library and a magnificent concert hall named for legendary Puerto Rican pianist Jesús María Sanromá (1902 – 1984), the Conservatorio boasts an outdoor plaza with splendid views of the city of San Juan and its lovely harbor. There the students congregated with guitars and violins, chatting and sipping espresso con leche (I prefer mine sin azúcar) in the enveloping tropical air, under towering palm trees. Truly I felt there can be no more inviting atmosphere in which to study the musical art.

Entrance to the Conservatorio; Explaining a point en Español (y Inglés)

At the Conservatorio I gave a master class to the piano students of Prof. María del Carmen Gil, in the small recital hall. Prof. Gil is the remarkable force behind the building of the new wing of the Conservatorio, during her tenure as head of the school. I was impressed by her students’ beautiful playing of works by Haydn, Chopin, Debussy, and Prokofieff, as well as their welcoming nature and eagerness to learn. In return I treated them to a foxtrot of George Gershwin, but I wish I could have knocked off a few Danzas of Morel Campos instead. That will have to wait for next time, and I will surely return — for the tropical music of Puerto Rico is simply irresistible, indeed sabroso in all ways.

Credo for Thanksgiving

Posted on: November 26th, 2014 by SDB 1 Comment

Thanksgiving Day 2014.

Playing at the Juilliard School Commemorative Recital
for my teacher Rudolf Firkušný, November 2012.

Some years ago in New York City, I taught piano in Room 605 of the building that originally housed the Juilliard School of Music, before its move to Lincoln Center.  The room had once been the studio of Olga Samaroff Stokowski (1880 – 1948), who gave lessons there to William Kapell, Rosalyn Tureck, Alexis Weissenberg, and many other musicians of note. There was no indication of the room’s illustrious history anywhere within that building, however. Only when my former Piano Literature professor, the erudite and witty Joseph Bloch, came for a visit one September afternoon, did he inform me which footsteps had preceded my own. He too, had taken his lessons in that room, with its sweeping views of Grant’s Tomb and the northern Hudson River. Madame Samaroff wrote down a musical Credo, in an undated letter to one of her pupils. It seems appropriate on this Thanksgiving Day 2014, to copy it here. For it reminds me of all the things I have to be grateful for, in my own life as a musician.

I believe in music as:

one of the loftiest forms of expression known to man.

a necessity in the spiritual life of man.

an endless source of pleasure that does not wane with the passing of time.

one of the things that can most powerfully stir and express the emotions of man.

a great enrichment of the imagination.

a social force possessing in the highest degree the power to induce states of mind that profoundly affect the character, the thoughts, and the actions of man.

So very much to be grateful for, on this day. Thank you, Madame Samaroff.


Canadian Royalty

Posted on: November 7th, 2014 by SDB 4 Comments


Left: Ellen Ballon, concert flyer (ca. 1933)
Right: Portrait of Ellen Ballon as a Young Woman, by Edward Barnard Lintott (oil on canvas, ca. 1935)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax

- – - – -

7 November 2014

Recent concert travels brought me to the Atlantic seacoast city of Halifax, in the northeastern province of Nova Scotia. At the Dalhousie University Arts Centre, where Symphony Nova Scotia presents its concerts (I was soloist in the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with the superb conductor Bernhard Gueller), the main lobby is graced by a magnificent display — an imposing bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein, and beautiful oil portrait by Edward Barnard Lintott (pictured above). The subject? Montréal-born pianist Ellen Ballon, a musician of the first rank whose name should drop from the tongues of all proud Canadian pianophiles as easily as those of Glenn Gould, Anton Kuerti, André Laplante, or Marc-André Hamelin.

Canada was home to a trio of outstanding women pianists in the mid-twentieth century: Mme. Ballon (1898 – 1969), Reah Sadowsky of Winnipeg (1915 – 2012), and the Ukrainian-born, Toronto-based Lubka Kolessa (1902 – 1997). All deserve far greater attention for their lives’ work and recordings; all are unheard on the airways of the CBC Radio; and all are nearly forgotten today. As an American emigré to the north, it often seems to me that Canadians believe the piano did not even exist before its invention by Glenn Goldberg Gould. Among the music students of Dalhousie University that I met during my visit, not one had bothered to learn the name of the woman whose portrait and bust they passed daily on their way to classes and concerts, nor did they have any inkling of what she had accomplished.

Which was a staggering amount. One of the youngest musical prodigies of all time (in 1906 Artur Rubinstein described her as “the greatest pianistic genius I have ever met”), Ellen Ballon was accepted as a pupil of Rafael Joseffy at age eight, and made her début with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch, playing Concertos of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, at the age of twelve (giving Josef Hofmann, who later taught her in Switzerland, a run for his money). She was invited to the White House three times, once as a child to play for President William Howard Taft, and in her adult years to perform for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In her twenties she worked with Wilhelm Backhaus in Vienna and Alberto Jonás in New York. At the height of her touring career, she resided variously in England, Canada and the United States, where she regularly appeared as a headliner in major venues like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House.

There was also something of Latina complexion to her personality, and perhaps Ellen Ballon’s very finest and most rhythmically fiery playing can be heard in her landmark recordings of the piano music of Brazilian composer Heiter Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959), from whom she commissioned and premiéred his First Piano Concerto in 1946. In an interview for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in August 1953, Ballon described Villa-Lobos’ music as “of the earth… it is so basic, primitive, if you like and so real.”

An interest in South American repertoire was something that Ballon shared with Reah Sadowsky, who recorded new music of Brazilian and Chilean composers and composed an orchestral dance entitled Cadíz. One can surmise that their mutual teacher Alberto Jonás, a Spaniard, helped to spark such curiosity in his two young Canadian pupils. Jonás dedicated his own difficult Novelette/Étude in Seconds to Ballon.

In the Ellen Ballon Archives housed at Dalhousie’s impressive Killam Library, one finds a treasure trove of manuscripts and autographs which attest to the wide literary and artistic circles in which Ballon travelled. She corresponded with Sir Wilfred Laurier, writer Edna Ferber, artist Kathleen Shackleton, sculptor Jacob Epstein, singer Lotte Lehman, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composer Aaron Copland, and countless others. She enjoyed a long and celebrated friendship with author W. Somerset Maugham, and my jaw literally dropped to see the shelf of warmly autographed first editions of his novels on the archival shelf.

The daughter of a wealthy family, Ellen Ballon herself generously supported the works of young and talented artists, and left a large endowment to McGill University, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree in 1954. This was a woman who felt clearly, that as her own artistic gifts had been carefully nurtured, so too she could nurture those who would succeed her.

Some years ago I proposed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that a collection of broadcast shows could be made, to revitalize the interest in pioneering and extraordinary Canadian pianists like Ballon, Sadowsky, and Kolessa (I imagined a series entitled “Gold before Gould”). There was not much interest, although after two years of nudging I did get the CBC to record one of Reah Sadowsky’s last house concerts, when she was 93 years old. After my visit to Dalhousie, I will once again try some nudging, to get the recorded legacy of Ballon and others onto the Canadian airways. But I do find it ironic, that an American might be more interested in the roots of Canadian pianism than those whose birthright should provide far more enthusiastic pride about it.

“It’s your country. If you don’t give a damn about your own heritage, why the hell should I?” was one provocative line I used in a conversation with a disinterested producer. His attitude was: it’s old news, no one remembers or cares, it’s not interesting any more. But I say that history forgotten is history lost, and it is unnecessarily tragic to lose the rich musical legacy of great artists such as Ellen Ballon. She lived a magnificent and generously artistic life, and we may yet enjoy the manifold musical gifts she bequeathed us. It is our job, as musicians or music lovers from any country, to listen to her work, and to know the beauty that flowed from her hands. Surely that would be Ellen Ballon’s own lasting wish.

Bust of Ellen Ballon, pianist, by Jacob Epstein (bronze, London 1938)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax

El Maéstro German Diéz (1924 – 2014)

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by SDB No Comments


With German Diéz at the Greenwich House Music School, May 2012.

News reached me this morning of the passing of the Cuban pianistic and pedagogic legend German Diéz (18 June 1924 – 9 July 2014). He had been chair of the piano department of the Greenwich House Music School in New York City for a remarkable 64 years, and had also taught at Bard College, SUNY-Purchase, and Brooklyn College, over the course of a long and influential musical life. He was a devoted and elegant friend, and I will join literally thousands of New York pianists who mourn his passing, and celebrate his artistic legacy.

His pianistic credentials were the stuff of legend. He was a pupil of Edward Steuermann, Carl Friedberg, and then Claudio Arrau, who asked him to become his trusted assistant. German (pronounced Hehr-mahn) played concerts all over Cuba, the West Indies, and the USA where he became renowned for his interpretive skill in contemporary music. But German’s greatest devotion was reserved for his own teaching of young people.

I often say that teaching in the Conservatory or University is an easy job. Older, advanced pianists come to play for you, and lessons begin on the higher plane of interpretive detail. But German Diéz taught young people — children, beginners, teenagers, young adults, of all levels of technical ability. He raised generations of them, transforming them from musical fledglings into professionals. Among his pupils were numerous international prizewinners, and they are spread all over the globe now. Such is the hardest teaching of all — training the basic mechanism of fingers, hands and arms; the laborious business of writing in fingerings and assigning metronome practice tempi; showing the workings of the pedals; designating progressively graded assignments. And German Diéz loved doing all that, as no one else I have ever known. He was a masterful teacher, and his proud pupils called him El Maéstro.

Masterful he was also, as a gentleman, a friend and a colleague. Whenever I saw German in New York, his conversation would burn as brightly as the Havana sunrise. Always some personal stories of Arrau, or Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, or the character of the Danzas Cubanas of Ignacio Cervántes; possibly a tale of some new teaching challenge; or the ongoing concerns of the Greenwich House Music School which was his first love as well as his family. He was elegant in his persona, suave in his speech, tropically dressed, a Grand Señor. I will miss no one greater than El Maéstro German Diéz.

Badura-Skoda’s final recital in Japan

Posted on: June 17th, 2014 by SDB 4 Comments


Only yesterday, and now. Paul Badura-Skoda in the Land of the Rising Sun.


Tokyo (Ibaraki Prefecture), Japan, 15 June 2014

Last evening, blessed by the Gods of fortunate timing, I found myself in attendance at a singular, memorable, musical event: the last piano recital in Japan given by Paul Badura-Skoda. The venerable Austrian master is still keyboard-spry at 86 years of age, but both he and his wife Elizabeth spoke to me of the increasing hardships of travel, road diet and jet lag. They were anticipating their flight home later today with satisfaction. No wonder, for their “Final Concert Tour” has brought them to seven concert halls across the country in the past two weeks.

Just two evenings ago I heard Mr. Badura-Skoda’s penultimate recital on this tour, in Nagoya. At Munetsugu Hall, a lucky audience of some 400 people heard the Austrian master in top form, playing a long and demanding program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (Variations and Sonatas of stil patetico nature) with probity, drive and confrontational abandon. It was thrilling, in fact unforgettable. Backstage afterwards, the pianist casually suggested to me, why don’t I come up to Ibaraki (north of Tokyo) to hear his other program? — an invitation that I took up in a heartbeat.

It proved a harder challenge to meet than expected. The Bando Civic Concert Hall in Ibaraki Prefecture is difficult to reach, without a car. My spouse Kayoko and I ended up taking the shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, and then a long bus connection to the rural suburb of Mitsukaido, where we stayed overnight. From Mitsukaido we had to take a half-hour taxi ride to Bando. The Badura-Skodas were driven some two hours back and forth there, from their Tokyo hotel, on concert day — no wonder Elizabeth remarked to me, “cette voyage, ah, nous sommes fatigués…”

Yet it hardly sounded so, last evening. An overflow crowd of some 600 people (of all ages! — I am astounded at how young Japanese children sit so quietly through such concerts) heard Badura-Skoda in a valedictory evening of Chopin — four Waltzes, four Mazurkas and the Barcarolle — and Schubert — the last Sonata in B flat major — plus a helping of five delectable encores.

Last year in Shanghai I heard Badura-Skoda give a gripping account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor KV 491 with his own cadenzas. Subsequently I caught up with him in Madison, Wisconsin, where I enjoyed a delightful afternoon of musical consultation on one of his favorite subjects, the Piano Sonatas of Mozart. And this past week in Japan, I found myself in the unusual position of being a groupie — in Japanese, one could say “otaku” — as my admiration of the pianist as both performer and scholar has only grown over the decades. His Mozart recordings profoundly influenced me as a young student, and his writings on performance practice enabled me to craft my own cadenzas to the Concertos of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Now, some three decades after first encountering his name, to get better-acquainted with him has been a rich and delightful blessing.

It would have been hard to top the Nagoya recital, where I felt I had never heard Haydn in particular played with more insight, sympathy, and emotive power. And indeed, Badura-Skoda was burdened with the weight of unimaginable expectation last evening. But one thing manifested itself from the opening note of the Chopin Waltz in A minor op. 34 no. 2 — the rich cantabile tone of a master’s touch, a sound one simply does not hear very often from pianists these days. That tone informed all the pieces on the program, of course, and the grateful Japanese audience (startling to say, I was the only gaijin in attendance) simply could not have enough of it.

In an interview given on his 75th birthday (in 2002) for the Österreich-Journal, Badura-Skoda referred to a central truth which is critical to the sound of his own pianism:

“The notes are important, firstly because of the silence that lies between them, and secondly the sound within them — what may be expressed, and must be. For the notes are like the words of a language; and if I speak a foreign language correctly but do not know the meaning of the words, then neither can my audience understand the meaning of the unfolding drama.”   [translation from the German].

The evening’s acme was, of course, a breathtaking traversal of the langorous Schubert Sonata, which Badura-Skoda took directly and at times in a tempo quicker than is often experienced. In addition to his tonal command, the Austrian pianist brought one of his greatest strengths to this performance, which is an architectural clarity coupled to forward momentum that has cumulative, shattering impact. In the midst of the last movement, I found myself in tears, amidst one of the songful episodes, savoring a tender phrase that would soon give way to the inevitable driving climax. All around me were other faces flecked with teardrops as well, and for the first time in my life, I found myself wishing that Schubert’s 40-minute masterpiece had another movement or two to go.

When the Schubert did come to its close, there was a rainshower of applause, bravos from all corners of the house, a flower bouquet brought on stage by an adorable child who was squeezed delightedly by the pianist, and then a growing procession of encores — Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major op. 90 no. 3; Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor; Otto Schulhof’s tender music-box mélange of Strauss Waltzes; and Schubert’s popular Moment Musical in F minor, whose rhythmic intro was accompanied by enthusiastic clapping (the pianist smiled at his assemblage in birthday boy approval). It would have been an ideal conclusion to a brilliant evening, but the Japanese audience would not let the moment go — the clapping continued, cascading into louder bursts with each reappearance of the maestro. Finally he consented to play a final Chopin Waltz (a short, posthumous one in B minor), after which the crowd was happy simply to cheer and clap fortissimo as Badura-Skoda stood to gaze upon them, hands folded across his chest in gratitude. Appreciation for a lifetime of concerts in this most poetic of countries, it is a scene I never expect to re-encounter. And it was then, too, that I fully felt the magnitude of the moment.

As Kayoko and I made our way through the exiting throngs to the backstage entrance, I reflected on other farewell piano recitals in Japan — by cigar-chomping Leonid Kreutzer; beloved Viennese pedagogue Max Eggers; Busoni disciple Leo Sirota — and it hit me hard, that I had witnessed something of the passing of pianistic history. Indeed, I wonder if we have simply come to the end of the Era of Keyboard Aristocracy. As a student in New York, I had been privileged to hear incredible piano recitals by Claudio Arrau, Magda Tagliaferro, Annie Fischer, and by my own count about 40 concerts of my own teacher Rudolf Firkušný; later in life I came to know Gunnar Johansen in Madison, Kiyoko Tanaka in Tokyo, Anthony di Bonaventura in Boston and Reah Sadowsky in San Francisco. Many speak nostalgically of such artists as people of great personality, but of course every age has its great personalities. For me, these towering pianists all possessed a European-inflected style and elegance as well, which encompassed a sincere humility and deference to the composer’s message on stage — a reverential, devotional obligation. It is that commitment, that sense of integral artistic approach — call it an awareness of God in the calling of music, if you will — that I fear is now lost, or all but so.

Thanks to the sensitive, well-worked hands of Paul Badura-Skoda, I could experience that majesty once more, for a couple of unforgettable Japanese evenings. The sound of that haunting beauty on stage in the Land of the Rising Sun, will forever linger in my ear, my mind, and in my musical core.


Paul Badura-Skoda in Japan

Posted on: June 12th, 2014 by SDB 2 Comments

With Paul Badura-Skoda in Shanghai, December 2013


Nagoya, Japan, 12 June 2014

Last evening I was among the fortunate 400 or so people, privileged beyond measure, to hear Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda give a recital — or more properly, a communion — of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, at the Munetsugu Concert Hall in Nagoya. It was the next-to-last performance on a Japanese recital tour billed as Badura-Skoda’s last in that country. But at a youthful 86 years young, he essayed a probing evening of artistry that would have drained any pianist half his age.

The core of his program was an examination of Stile patetico (the “pathetic style” — see my earlier blog entry), as exemplified in three Sonatas in the key of C minor, one each by Haydn (Hob. XVII / 20), Mozart (KV 457) and Beethoven (op. 13); and included as well the Variations in F minor of Haydn and Pastorale Sonata of Beethoven. There was much to admire and enjoy in every work played, but it was in the Haydn Sonata that Badura-Skoda revealed the fullest extent of his genius. Through the pianist’s exquisite pedalling and tonal control of the extraordinary chromatic passagework of the second movement Andante, and spellbinding grapple with the tragic Finale Allegro, Franz Joseph Haydn came to life in Nagoya as if we all had been whisked straight to the Court of Esterházy for a round of schnapps with the man. And the unforgettable sensation of the onstage musical dialogue was that of a mighty eagle in winter, high in his Alpine aerie, surveying the jagged landscape of mortality below him, contemplating the cloudy atmosphere above and beyond — not in peaceful acceptance but in noble, defiantly proud rage.

Backstage afterwards, the genial and humble European gentleman underneath all of that Faustian musical ability reappeared, asking if the program had been too long, and alluded to the hard demands of a long tour in a foreign country. Then happily suggested, why don’t I come along to Ibaraki (north of Tokyo) in a couple of days to hear him play another program, of works by Chopin and Schubert (the last Sonata, in B flat major). Who indeed would want to miss that? So to say, shinkansen tickets were changed, and my much-needed rest in Osaka will have to wait for another 72 hours. I have a date with Franz Schubert at Ibaraki’s Bando Civic Hall on June 14th, and I need to hear what that composer has to say to me, to Paul Badura-Skoda, and to us all.