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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Richard Goode

Richard Goode

There are those whose passions for people, places, and things are mercurial while others are more even-keeled in their involvements. Pianist Richard Goode probably falls in the latter group, but the level and intensity of his convictions and commitments are astonishing, and they give him his unique profile as performer and person.

Although Goode's stature as a world-class soloist is of comparatively recent vintage, he has been before the public for a long time, principally as an accompanist and chamber music pianist. Throughout his professional life, he has surrounded himself with musicians to whom he feels a particular kinship, and this remarkable circle contains such personalities as singers Bethany Beardslee and Benita Valente, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, composer George Perle, and many in the original core group of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, of which he was a founding member and with whom he performed regularly for twenty years. Among the people closest to the making of music, Goode has inherited the descriptive tag often conferred on one of his teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski: "a musician's musician."

Goode was born in the East Bronx in 1943. His parents, not themselves musicians (although his father played violin and both loved the art), soon detected Richard's unusual gift. When it came to choosing high schools — the boy had gone to public schools and there was talk of his entering the High School of Music and Art — it was decided to send him to a private school that would permit him to intensify his piano studies. Among his early teachers were Elvira Szigeti (aunt of the celebrated violinist Josef Szigeti), Claude Frank and Nadia Reisenberg. His greatest musical mentor and guide in those early days was Mrs. Rosalie Leventritt, widow of patron Edgar M. Leventritt. (The Leventritt Foundation established the country's first and most prestigious competition for young musicians, launching many notable careers, including those of pianists John Browning, Van Cliburn, Eugene Istomin, and Alexis Weissenberg, and of violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman.) It was she who was to introduce him to the Mannes College of Music's extension division, the Marlboro Festival, and the Curtis Institute (where he continued his studies with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski).

His "professional track" began early, at the age of eight. "I never entertained any other idea. I think with performers it's pretty much the rule to know early in childhood. Or if they don't know then, they do have to get an idea of technical requirements before their mid-teens. That's one of the problems, I think. You decide early and excuse your psychological development later," he quipped.

Goode's wife, the violinist Marcia Weinfeld, comes in to ask about a tour that is to begin on the following day and, as the logistics are addressed, the eye wanders around the cozy living room of the modest apartment on New York's midtown East Side. The central object in the room is the piano. But of almost equal prominence are the books, the stacks of music, the paintings. The ambience easily gives rise to a free chain of questions, associations, and ideas.

Is there a marked difference, we asked, between the past, when composers were also performers (Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.), and the present, when the need for specialization has created something of a gulf between partners in the musical experience? "It's hard not to regret the lack of connection. Unity in music is certainly the ideal. The kind of performances that I love is the kind where you say that it sounds like he's writing the piece. And, of course, if you do have the experience of writing pieces, then you'll be more likely to come up with a performance that sounds like you're writing. The connection is from inside. I think that maybe the main danger of performances these days is that they aren't always generated from within. And coming from the other side, a lot of 20th century music may not be sufficiently direct, unless composers have a more immediate connection to instruments. It has so much to do with the movement of music into the margin of our lives rather than expressing something very central."

On the music of today: "First of all, I have to say that there's so much going on that I really have no idea of it all. There are so few pieces that I've gotten to know really well. But my impression is that things were on a very discouraging path 15 years ago. There was an academic stranglehold on music, a devotion to serialism that was totally misguided, crazy in fact. I think the situation now is dizzying but essentially much more healthy. The responsiveness of composers to all kinds of different trends is a most encouraging development for me. We now have a choice of so many kinds of music, and no one can say any longer that music has to go this or that way."

How does he go about preparing a piece for public presentation, be it for performance or recording? "If it's a recording, it has to be preceded by public performance. But many of the pieces that I prepare, I've had in my ear somehow, from having looked at them or having taught them. Most of the time, I don't start from scratch. I'll look them over, rather slowly, examining possibilities, turning them over, doing sort of an analysis of them, trying to get the main lines clear, very important — working out the fingering, choosing the edition — I take lessons from the Schnabel editions that I still use in study because they have invaluable suggestions — and in that way, pieces begin to take shape. I can't say that I have a plan of action, things I always do. It's a gradual coming together."

What about the use of music at performances? "I probably use music more than most. That may be partly because I play chamber music so much, and that may have accustomed me to using it. I do think that playing by heart is a wonderful additional freedom, but it's also a tyranny. For myself — and I can't speak for other people-there are certain works in which the advantages of playing by heart far outweigh the possible inhibition of playing with music; and others where it works the other way. I would say that in much 20th century music and some of the more complex works of Bach, I prefer using music. My guess is that if some of the strictures on the use of music were relaxed, a lot of pianists would play a far broader repertoire. Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon in his later years, Richter all played with music and their performances didn't suffer."

Did he think it important for pianists to know the literature of other instruments? After a straightfaced "no, they need to know only their own" and a big laugh: "Of course. One couldn't imagine playing the Debussy Preludes without knowing what the Songs are like, and so it goes for all other composers except for Chopin. The piano is the great instrument of illusion and transformation. Sounding like a piano, it can sound like everything else. The greatest thing is to make the piano sound like the ideal instrument, the voice, or for that matter, poetically, all the other instruments of the orchestra. Consequently a pianist needs to keep his ears open in these very many ways. Dick Stoltzman and I recently played some Ives songs — they are to American music what The Leaves of Grass is to American poetry — and we both, on our respective instruments, imitate the voice. If you think seriously about the piano as a vocal instrument, and how many ways there are for the voice to make an interval alive — that, to me, is at the heart of playing the piano."

What responsibilities did he think a piano teacher had to his students? "If I have ever let my students down, it's that I haven't always fully attended the business of being something of a policeman. It's a role that never appealed to me, but in some ways I feel that it's really necessary. My first teacher, Mrs. Szigeti, made no separation between music and technique. There were technical things to be learned and excercises were to be practiced in a musical way. She loved the materials of music very much, and something of that rubbed off on me. Not only did I have a feeling of joy and accomplishment when I practiced Hanon, I even liked it harmonically. But I think that there are two kinds of piano teacher. The first — I think in a way the more difficult — is the teacher who actually guides the musical and instrumental education of a student from earlier stages, say from age 10 or 11. The second is more of a coach. People's playing is more or less fully formed by the time they're in their twenties. One can learn a great deal after that, but the foundation is set."

On the way music is perceived in society: "I took a cab recently. The driver was a Russian who had recently come to this country. We started talking about music, about Soviet artists, and I asked about Richter. He said, yes, he was a wonderful artist but did I know Maria Yudina? He started to speak about this woman — remember, he was not a musician — as if she incarnated his ideals of life. I thought that he felt her speaking for him, that he loved her the way one loves one's favorite composer or writer, that it was something central. It was a feeling of centrality, that what the arts say was fundamental to life and not merely an ornament or cultured accomplishment. His prioritizing spoke for the perception of music's role in his life. I remember speaking to the conductor Edmond de Stoutz about Clara Haskil. `She did basic music,' he said, as if to say that for her music was not like a luxury product, it was like bread. I loved that. People read because it's necessary; they listen to music because it's necessary. When you're on stage and see the people in the house, you know that they are there because it's necessary for them to hear Beethoven sonatas. Not just that they want to hear what you do to those pieces, they know a lot of other pianists who've done those sonatas. No, those pieces are part of their lives. And I think that's what performers really want because that puts them in the right light. Then they become transmitters and not simply on show."

On competitions: "Do you mean if I think them a necessary evil? I don't know. When I was a kid, there were only a handful of important competitions and a sprinkling of others, but it still seemed possible to get by without entering them. Now, not only are there so many, but it seems that there are no students who feel that they can do without them. Mr. Horszowski felt that the decline of general musical literacy among his students was directly connected to the proliferation of competitions.

They thought they could polish a few things up to a high gloss and do the rounds, rather than learning repertory in a broad way. I don't know what the alternatives are."

About the early music movement: "I've learned a good deal from some of the instruments. Some of the things that have seemed difficult and frustrating [on a concert grand] fall away [with a reconstruction or original instrument]. Others become difficult and frustrating. The modern piano is a problem when you play some of the repertoire, and these ancient instruments have made us more aware of absolute clarity of sound and attack and a quality of linear outline. It's very difficult to achieve that on a lot of modern pianos. On the other hand, I have often been struck [in performances on ancient instruments] with a certain lack of cantabile, of vocal quality. But frankly, I don't think that sound is all that important. The music itself is much more important in most of the literature. As the movement continues, one development will be that we will have very interesting performers playing, who understand that the composer's message must come through, and know what's going on rhythmically. It's not enough to play the text as if it were self-sufficient, metronomically and without rhythmic imagination. You have to use your imagination in many different ways."

Goode has played and recorded a lot of George Perle's music. In fact the Ballade was written for and dedicated to him. How did that association come about? "Through Shirley [Rhoads, the pianist who is Mrs. George Perle]. I'm an old friend of Shirley's and anyone who knows her also knows George. I got the Ballade page by page, and it took a while before I understood what George was driving at. It was about a month of playing daily until I got the harmonies in my head. I think he wrote the Ballade not only thinking about Chopin Ballades, his direct inspiration, but also with my kind of playing in mind. It's clearly a piece that's congenial to my musical personality. I've also performed and recorded his Concertino which is much more Stravinskyan. Although calling a piece that's rhythmically incisive Stravinskyan is like calling anything to do with sex Freudian. It's a little too much to visit Stravinsky with anything that happens to be strictly in time."

Did he think that the contemporary performer owes it to anyone to play contemporary music? "Well, he owes it to himself to find out what it sounds like. I think you'd have to be totally lacking in curiosity not to want to know what's going on in your own time, or else very bitter. That's part of being alive as an artist, knowing what's going on. But I do not think that the contemporary performer owes it to anybody to play contemporary music if that music does not fill his sails or ring his bells. In fact, he owes it to people not to play their music if it doesn't do to him what old music does. I do not think that a dutiful performance is worth anybody's time. But getting to know new music does take time and involvement. Look, if I hadn't devoted the month to learning George Perle's eight-minute piece, it would never have soaked in. There has to be that initial pull."

The death of Horowitz registered in all the world's consciousness. The degree of public awareness says much about both Horowitz and the world. With the disappearance of great icons such as Horowitz, are there others taking their place as larger-than-life musicians? "The environment is changing. We no longer conceive of one individuality meaning so much. Some areas have trees growing to an enormous height; others where they don't grow so big, although there are quite a few good-size ones. Maybe there are even more good-size ones than there were in the past, but the towering ones aren't there anymore. When you think about, say Horowitz in particular, you can never lose sight of his personality or his environment, his own inner law which was very unusual among musicians. He was a phenomenon. I think that it's much harder to be the eccentric now. Horowitz did everything in Russian, he did it in Horowitz. He did certain things absolutely extraordinarily, and other things where you could vomit, but he did it all his way, and it was always first-rate Horowitz. How difficult it is, how almost impossible, to grow up now and be oneself to such an extent! In some ways he was a very insular figure. Nowadays anyone with such an enormous talent could not be like that. Perhaps isolation is really necessary to breed such enormities. Public fanfare may have been created [to bring him into the consciousness of a huge public], but what actually happened was something entirely between him and the instrument. It was that magical act between him and his fingers and the keyboard, his imagination, and that weird sound world that only he knew how to unlock."

What can be done to guard against the ossification of the repertory? Did Richard Goode feel this to be a danger? "I'm sure it is, at least for some more than for others. Andras Schiff, for example, is incredible. He plays everything. Other people — and I'm one of them — need quite a long time, not only for learning but before they feel they have the right to play a piece publicly. But then, when I want to move on, people ask if I'd play the Beethoven sonata program again. [Goode has recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas for Book-of-the-Month Club Records.] Now one doesn't do that to become identified with Beethoven sonatas. I almost always have the feeling that I could certainly play a piece better, or there's a certain dissatisfaction that drives me on. But that's also a danger, because I realize that, in the time I spend trying to achieve the best possible performance of a certain Beethoven sonata, I could be learning 22 other pieces."

How does he — an artist first known as a chamber music pianist and accompanist — strike a balance in concertizing, now that he can more or less pick his engagements? "If I have the opportunity to play solo recitals now, I take advantage of it because I've done less of that than the other literature. For me the richest thing that a pianist can do is still the solo repertoire. They say that these are days in which solo recitals are less prized by performers and listeners than a lot of other things, and maybe that's true. But for me just now, it's my first choice, although I'm also accompanying [soprano] Dawn Upshaw this year."

The solo recital may be Richard Goode's choice at this juncture of his career. But always in evidence is his passionate involvement with other artists he admires, with chamber music, orchestral dates, and recording. Because for Richard Goode, the unity and centrality about which he speaks so vividly is music in all its guises. It is the totality of music that sparks his life.

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