Sitting down at the Steinway on the stage of the Wold Center, Gary Graffman demonstrates how he tests pianos for the Curtis Institute, which has asked its former director to help choose a new batch of 20 for the Philadelphia arts school.
Graffman’s test piece is a slow solo passage from the middle of second movement of the Brahms Second Concerto. And he is playing it with two hands.
Not unusual for pianists, of course, but it is for this one.
“The underlying thing is, probably the brain is sending a wrong signal,” Graffman said of the right-hand dysfunction he’s had for more than 30 years, a problem that interrupted a major career and sent it onto a different, although very rewarding, path.
This weekend, the great American pianist appears at Lynn University for a concert of music for piano, left hand, which since he turned about 50 has been the only repertoire with which Graffman has been able to concertize. Robbed of the reliable use of the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand by focal dystonia, he has been concentrating on the left hand instead, performing the small literature for the hand and commissioning new works for it while pursuing an august teaching career at Curtis.
On Saturday night at the Wold Center on Lynn’s Boca Raton campus, Graffman will perform left-hand works by Scriabin (including an arrangement of the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1), the Brahms left-hand arrangement of Bach’s D minor Chaconne, and the Sonata for the Left Hand Alone (in C minor, Op. 179) of the German late Romantic composer Carl Reinecke.
“It’s a real sonata,” he said, adding that Reinecke, who lived a long life (1825-1910), was heavily influenced by the older Romantics of his time, including Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
He then will be joined by violinists Elmar Oliveira and Carol Cole, plus cellist David Cole, in the Suite (Op. 23) for two violins, cello and piano, left hand, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, once known best for his film scores but whose concert work, including this five-movement piece from 1930, is getting increasing attention.
“Some of it is quite wild,” he said, though not as wild as the composer’s Concerto for the Left Hand, for which Graffman gave the North American premiere. “This has less fantasy, but I think it’s an interesting piece. The second movement is a beautiful Viennese-type thing. The third movement is very difficult for the cello, especially.”
Graffman was born in 1928 in New York, the son of a Russian violinist who had emigrated to the United States to escape the Russian Revolution. He showed talent early on, entering the Curtis at the tender age of 7, where he studied with Isabelle Vengerova. He made his debut in 1946 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was one of the wave of bright young American pianists who emerged onto the scene during the immediate postwar period, joining artists such as Willam Kapell, Claude Frank and Eugene Istomin.
He pursued further informal studies with the legendary Vladimir Horowitz and with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music Festival, but soon had a major career in which he played about 100 concerts a year and made numerous recordings, including popular accounts of concerti by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Toward the end of the 1970s, he began to notice that he couldn’t play a tricky octaves passage in the Brahms Second Concerto with the same kind of accuracy as before.
“It’s a very difficult passage, so it doesn’t come out exactly the way you want it to 100 percent of the time. But I figured, 80 percent of the time, and the other 20, it didn’t fall apart or anything, it just wasn’t as good,” Graffman said. “And then I started having more problems with it. And I’d practice it more, now not for the 80 percent, but maybe 70 percent.”
Then he started having trouble with pieces that had never been too difficult for him, such as the variation in sixths in the Brahms Handel Variations, and much of the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto. Something was clearly wrong.
What was happening was that the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand were involuntarily contracting. He holds up his right hand to demonstrate, and says the problem only occurs when he tries to extend the hand in order to play octaves.
“I can’t control it. As soon as I start to play, it wants to do that,” he said, curling the fourth and fifth fingers onto the palm. Not extending the hand meant “I could actually play, and play pretty decently,” but it severely limited the kind of repertoire he could perform.
Consultations with many doctors followed, the first few of whom “diagnosed me with whatever their specialty was,” he said. “So I really wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Finally, Graffman went to Boston for a year to be a study subject for a team at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I took a studio there for one year, and would go there every week for two days,” he said. “Steinway put a piano in the room, and the doctors put a portable biofeedback machine on the piano.”
The doctors “turned themselves inside out” trying to nail down the problem, and included physical therapy in Graffman’s regimen. But while there were improvements in muscle strength, the pianist has never been able to rely on the hand since.
Still, it could have been worse, Graffman points out. The same thing happened to pianist Leon Fleisher, but at a much earlier stage in his career. “I was 50 when this happened. Leon Fleisher was 35. That’s a huge difference,” he said. “Two, I’d been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, but no: It’s only your hand. And thirdly, I have other interests besides music. I went back to Columbia University and took some graduate courses in Chinese, Japanese and Indian art history.”
As his concert career went on hiatus, he was offered chances to teach at Curtis and the Manhattan School of Music, which he did beginning in 1980. In 1986, he was named director of the Curtis Institute and led it for the next 20 years.
His recent pupils have included some of the leading pianists today, including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Other young students include the Cliburn medalist Haochen Zhang, Lydia Artymiw, Di Wu and Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
“I enjoy teaching, and I think the lack of any formal training in teaching was maybe an advantage, in a certain way, if you have fantastically gifted students,” he said. “Anyone who’s accepted to Curtis, whether they’re 10 years old or 20, already play extremely well.”
These days, Graffman, who has lived in the same New York apartment building for 48 years, goes to Curtis twice a month and “gives very long lessons” to six students.
“What I try to do, whether I’ve been successful or not I don’t know, is to put myself in the mind of that young person,” he said. “This I learned from Horowitz … What was interesting was that from the very beginning he didn’t go to the piano and say, ‘No, no, I feel it this way’ … He tried to see what I was striving for, and what he felt I was not succeeding in reaching, on my basis and for what I wanted.”
Graffman, who turns 83 in October, says there are opportunities for music school students who want to get jobs in the field, even if most of them don’t end up having world-class solo careers. “The point is, they’re doing it,” said Graffman, who will give two master classes at Lynn in the morning and early afternoon Sunday.
And he doesn’t see any reason that’s going to change over the long term.
“Shakespeare is going to be heard forever while there are human beings on the earth. Beethoven also will be. In order to play a Beethoven symphony, you need an orchestra,” Graffman said. “There may be one generation where it’s a slightly larger or slightly smaller minority of the people who will go to it … But to hear a Beethoven symphony, you have to have an orchestra.”
Gary Graffman performs at 7: 30 p.m. Saturday at the Wold Performing Arts Center, Lynn University, Boca Raton. Tickets: $20-$35. Graffman will give master classes at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Amarnick-Goldstein Concert Hall on the Lynn campus. Admission is free. Call 237-9000 or visit www.lynn.edu.