Sunday, July 6, 2014


RADIO WON’T WAIT         0307

According to its producer, The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a way for radio audiences “to feel cultured without really being so.” Beginning in 1934 it provided classical music, popular opera arias, familiar ballads and hymns. Henry Ford hired most of the Detroit Symphony as the house orchestra. The conductors were some of the best – Sir John Barbirolli and Fritz Reiner. The soloists were the finest, although, in the case of pianist Myra Hess, the encounter with radio was not graceful.

Hess was booked to play Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor for a March 7, 1937 broadcast. A representative of the Ford Motor Company suggested a fee of $3,000.

It was a fortune. “That’s ridiculous!” Hess declared.

Taking her surprise for disappointment, the man from Ford said, “All right then. Make it $4,000.”

The rehearsal was timed so precisely that Hess got rattled. She went back to her hotel suite, shut herself up in the sitting room, and practiced until it was past time for her to leave for the broadcast. When she got up to go, she found that the door had jammed, trapping her in the room. With the aid of a friend, she forced the door open, did a quick change, and managed to get to the concert hall on time – barely.

The orchestra was already playing an overture as she was led to a small gilt chair on the stage. When the overture ended, she stood up and headed toward the piano, but she was only halfway to it when the time-conscious conductor signaled for the drum roll that began the concerto. She made what was described as “a running dive” for the keyboard and got there just in time to hit the dramatic opening chords.

The ordeal had its compensations. After the broadcast Myra Hess told a backstage policeman that no one had any right to the outlandish fee she was getting for performing the radio concert.

SHOWMANSHIP       0408

In 1832, after attending a concert by Niccolo Paganini, twenty-year-old Franz Liszt had been inspired to raise the level of his virtuosity by applying Paganini’s violin technique to the piano. At the same time, Paganini’s charismas made Liszt realize that showmanship would take him to even greater heights. A description of a Liszt concert of ten years later shows that the pianist had taken his lessons to heart.

On April 8, 1842, Russian critic Vladimir Stasov attended a Liszt concert at the Assembly Hall of the Nobles in St. Petersburg. He described a stage in the middle of the concert hall on which stood two pianos facing in opposite directions.

Liszt, noticing the time, walked down from the gallery, elbowed his way through the crowd and hurried toward the stage. Instead of using the steps, he leapt onto the stage. He yanked off his white kid gloves and tossed them on the floor, under the piano. Then, after bowing low in all directions to a din of applause, such as probably had not been heard in St. Petersburg since 1703, he sat down at the piano. A hush fell over the hall at once. He went straight into the opening cello phrase of the William Tell Overture. As soon as he finished, while the hall was still ringing with applause, he rushed to the second piano facing in the opposite direction. Throughout the concert he alternated pianos, facing first one, then the other half of the hall.

He played the Andante from Lucia, his fantasy on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, piano transcriptions of Schubert’s Standchen and Erlkonig, Beethoven’s Adelaide, and ended with his own Galop chromatique.

Never in our lives had we heard anything like that; we had never been in the presence of such a brilliant, passionate, demonic personality, at one moment rushing like a whirlwind, at another pouring and cataracts of pure beauty and grace.

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