Bring on the hard stuff

Posted: November 20, 2012

NEW YORK - The sitting room is meticulously appointed, with the last two issues of the New York Review of Books neatly folded on the end table. In the kitchen, not a stray crumb is to be seen.

But Seymour Lipkin's piano room looks like the aftermath of an earthquake. Fallen stacks of scores, no doubt containing a large slice of Western classical music, are still almost as tall as the diminutive pianist. At the top of a pile sits Bach's mighty Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, on which he's working in his 85th year.

"But he knows where everything is," says his Juilliard School of Music student, Ye Kwon Sun Woo, in reassuring tones.

Good for everybody, because Lipkin, apart from his teaching duties at both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute, has serious work ahead of him. Lipkin, 84, may be one of the oldest pianists in history to program Beethoven's complex, gargantuan Sonata in B flat major (Op. 106), "Hammerklavier," which concludes his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert on Tuesday. The piece ends in a fugue that seems to require three extra hands. Lipkin is sure his own pair will do fine.

"I don't question why," he says at his Upper West Side studio. "The fingers seem to be moving perfectly well, as far as I can tell, and in a way, better. The discipline and efficiency gets better as you go along."

Would he consider some virtuoso finger-buster such as Liszt's Mephisto Waltz? "Why not?" he says. But he wouldn't choose to.

Many pianists play beautifully at an advanced age, such as one of Lipkin's teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who gave concerts at age 100. However, nearly all senior pianists adjust their repertoire - the physically demanding Hammerklavier often being put aside in late middle age just as the intellectually demanding piece starts making sense.

Lipkin, though, thinks he can improve over the recording he made roughly a decade ago. "My perception of the thought process has deepened. It's like, 'Oh, that's what he was doing! I see!' Before, you just sort of play it, relying on your instincts. The interior is like a paragraph in which every word carries multiple meanings but fit into the drama."

Older pianists do fall out of touch with their own capabilities. But Lipkin isn't likely to be one of them. Former Curtis director Gary Graffman heard him play a movement from the Hammerklavier sonata at a memorial service for a mutual friend a year ago and says it was a superb example of Rudolf Serkin's legacy of playing precisely what's on the page. "And yet," Graffman says, "his playing sounds completely free."

"I say to my students: At this moment, you are 8 feet tall," says Lipkin. "We become the greatness of the composer we're dealing with."

He even has imaginary conversations with Beethoven:

"Lipkin! Make a sforzando here!'

"Ludwig, I don't feel like it!

"Shut up and do what I tell you!"

In real life, though, Lipkin's exchanges with some colleagues have been tougher.

Though his mileage doesn't seem to weigh that heavily upon him, Lipkin has plenty of it, often seeming to pop up, like the mythical Zelig, in far-flung musical places. A recently released archival recording from the Salzburg Festival has Lipkin playing piano in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("Age of Anxiety").

Key his name into, and a body of recordings from Blue Hill, Maine (his longtime summer residence) comes up - in addition to his extensive Beethoven and Schubert sonata recordings on Newport Classics. Some musicians know him exclusively as a conductor - the profession the Detroit-born Lipkin alternately embraced and fled.

Though a Serkin piano student at the Curtis Institute, Lipkin pursued conducting ambitions as an assistant to both Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, and worked as a fulltime conductor in the 1970s and '80s with the Long Island Philharmonic and the Joffrey Ballet. In that last organization, work with choreographer George Balanchine had less wiggle room than encounters with the famously strict Serkin.

"Pianists can take things a little faster or slower, but you do that in ballet and they come down on you like a ton of bricks," Lipkin says. "In Balanchine's Scotch Symphony, a wonderful ballet, he wanted the second movement very fast. I told him it's awfully difficult for the winds. He frowned . . . and said, 'It's not Mendelssohn's symphony anymore. It's my ballet.' "

Ultimately, the Joffrey's tour schedule made him stop - he had a family to raise - and take a year off to get his pianistic fingers back, rediscovering the joys of controlling phrases down to the tiniest detail.

An amazing sight reader, Lipkin can learn music more easily and quickly on his own. But with the weight of the performance completely on him, he has maintained a regime that included running one or two miles a day until recently, when his doctor ordered him to stop.

In his teaching life, at both Juilliard and Curtis, Lipkin is careful not to impose on his students what was often imposed on him. Often, he tells students not to practice at all, but to think about music away from the keyboard. Find your own way, he says to Sun Woo, who, like many Korean pianists, learned musical interpretation with rotelike imitation. "I had to struggle with how to communicate with audiences," said the 23-year-old student, "to decide how to make my own music."

If there's one point of sadness there, it's what happens when students leave - which is often nothing. One student, a Chinese woman named Miao Hou, played spellbinding Mozart at a high-profile concert in New York's Zankel Hall. I told Lipkin I hadn't heard anything about her since.

"Neither have I," he said quietly. "These people disappear. It's a funny profession. One woman . . . she was lucky to get a job in a little college outside of Pittsburgh. What a waste! And she played the really big stuff."

Pianists with colossal parent-pushed careers, Lipkin says, are often no happier in their nomadic lives. The only thing Lipkin can do, it seems, is gently show the parents out the door when it's time to teach, and instill some of the values he grew up with. "It's terribly important for the students to understand that they have to develop themselves and not function for what the parents want," he says. "But it's very difficult."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at

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