No pianist created so much drama in my life as the great Horowitz. I’m not even sure what to call him. When he was dying, he told his manager “Hey, you’re family. I’m dying. There is no need for you to be calling me ‘Mr. Horowitz.’ You may simply call me ‘Maestro.’” With anyone else, I might speculate that the guy was full of himself. But with Maestro Horowitz, it was all well-earned.
Four years after we saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, I was allowed to once again eat downstairs when Horowitz came out of one of his many retirements and played his triumphant return before the TV cameras. I will never forget anything about that performance. Never mind Beatlemania. I had MaestroMania for life. His long suit coat and tails, his tall and elegant style, the way he owned the Carnegie Hall stage, the startled and dazzled audience, the nine foot Steinway concert grand, the effectiveness of black and white TV in capturing this iconic legend, his astonishing technique that actually made you wonder if he was an alien, his thundering fortissimos that never banged but somehow squeezed fifty times the sound out of that Steinway than we mere mortals ever could, the pianissimos that were so quiet your ears were at full attention attempting to capture every nuanced tone, the way he remained so still at the piano, doing weird things like keeping his wrists lower than the keys, curling up his right fifth finger, his own transcription of the “Stars and Stripes” that brought down the house, and how, afterwards, I felt full. Not from the dinner (I have NO recollection what I ate if anything while watching this on TV), but from the experience of watching him. I felt nourished. Not merely entertained, but connected to the music, the musician, and other people in the audience of millions who had witnessed this once in a lifetime performance.
And the great thing was…it wasn’t once in a lifetime. In fact, his life and mine seemed to weave in and out like a courtly dance. When he made his U.S. debut in 1928, Sir Thomas Beecham conducted while Horowitz played the Tchaikovsky Concerto Number One. Beecham and Horowitz could not agree on the tempo and the result was a bit of a mess at the start, but then Horowitz’s playing shined through and the tempo skirmish was quickly forgotten. When I debuted with the Chicago Symphony on November 3, 1976, I played the Beethoven Concerto Number Three. The first time we performed it, the conductor started too slowly; I came in at my tempo and the result was a bit of a mess at the start, but it became rip-roaring after that. Horowitz was born in Kiev; my family all came from or near Kiev. Horowitz’s famous 1932 recording of the Liszt B Minor Sonata was, and remains, one of the greatest recordings of that work ever made; that record gave me chills and converted me into a Romantic music performer overnight. Horowitz only had seven students during his lifetime; two of them were among my other favorite pianists, Byron Janis and Gary Graffman (Gary and my mom dated for awhile — no disrespect to my own dad, but I probably would have been more handsome if my mom had married Gary…but I digress). Some of his personal struggles mirrored my own, but he (like me) overcame obstacles which ultimately made him stronger.
But none of that, NONE of that, could hold a candle to what happened one day in 1974. First, consider that, with all of Horowitz’s “retirements,” he only had been actively playing concerts for four years of my life (1965 to 1969) by the time I turned 14 in 1974. I started studying piano in 1967. So it was kind of a drag that most of my early piano life, I was going to all sorts of piano concerts, but was continually told I “could not” see Horowitz because “he just isn’t playing these days.” But then Harry Zelzer announced to the daily rags in Chicago that Horowitz was coming to Orchestra Hall. My friend Jenny and I camped out in front of Orchestra Hall in order to buy tickets. We knew we would not be the only ones. A long but patient line waited, shared stories about the guy, and waited some more. And we were able to get good seats too. Not stage seats, but at least we were sitting on the left of the pianist so we could see “the” fingers. And when he came out, the crowd went nuts. Old ladies, old men, young folk like us, and everyone in between, literally shrieked. This time he was in color. This time I wasn’t sitting in my basement. And when he acknowledged the crowd, he made gestures with his hands and arms that said (to me at least) “I am so grateful for your continued devotion. I am moved, and touched, by all of this.” And when he played, no one breathed. No one moved. No one fidgeted. And (a first for a Chicago audience), no one coughed. Occasionally you’d look at someone next to you as if to say “Can you believe what we are seeing and hearing?” And when the encores turned into more encores, it became clear the crowd would do everything in its power to keep him playing, to show him how much we loved him, how grateful we were to have him back, but finally he figured out what we were doing, and again communicated with his hands and arms, this time as if to say “Look at the time, they’re kicking me out, I need to let you folks go home, but thank you so much for your love.” And when the house lights went on, I felt full. Not full, really but nourished. The quality of my life during those two-plus hours had been exceedingly high. We went out into the night talking about everything…why does he begin at 4pm sharp and ONLY plays recitals at 4pm sharp? Did you know he flies his Steinway everywhere he plays? That he only eats a certain kind of caviar that day of a performance? That he takes a nap at a certain time the day of a performance? How did he ever develop that technique? And when we got into the car, my dad absentmindedly turned on the radio. “NO!” my mom and I shouted. “Please turn it off.” We had just seen and heard Maestro Horowitz. No more sounds that night were necessary.
Horowitz wasn’t on my bucket list — he was the list. And the Liszt. When he passed away 15 years after that magical evening in 1974, we knew there would never be another. No one will shriek as loudly as we did that afternoon starting at 4pm ever again. No one will play as loud or as softly as he did ever again. No one will fill the human heart with such musical expression in that way again. No one will set the bar that much higher ever again. And no one will take something as seemingly ordinary as a Clementi Sonata, and extract pure musical heaven from it, ever again. Horowitz is like love — it may be crazy and even painful at times, but we seek it out again and again because it’s as close as we can ever hope to come to real magic.@