In Praise of Pianos and the Artists Who Play Them

In May 1975, Arthur Rubinstein, at 88 still one of the world's top concert pianists, returned for the last time to his birthplace, the Polish industrial city of Lodz. Not a seat or an inch of standing room was free in the Grand Theater as he launched into a typically demanding concerto program. No sooner had the last thunderous notes sounded than the stage was flooded with a sea of carnations, the audience cheered itself hoarse, the orchestra rose to applaud. As he had done throughout his long career, writes Rudolph Chelminski, the old maestro had his listeners wound around his little finger, demonstrating once again the power of the mysterious bond that ties a great concert pianist to his public.

Franz Liszt, granddaddy of the profession, drove his audiences to such fits of hysteria that ladies would hurl their jewels up onto the stage, shrieking and swooning, reports Chelminski. But it was Beethoven, as much as anyone, who set the standard for flamboyance. Once, when Beethoven was playing a new concerto of his with an orchestra in Vienna, he forgot that he was a solo player, and springing up, began to direct in his usual way. At the first sforzando he threw out his arms so wide that he knocked both the candles off the piano upon the ground. Two boys were deputized to take the candles off the piano and hold them, but at the next appearance of the fatal sforzando, one received Beethoven's backhand right in the kisser and dropped the candlestick clattering to the stage.

There is no formula, says Chelminski, for becoming a maestro, but a distinguishing characteristic is that maestros almost always begin as child prodigies. Mozart, for instance, began at the harpsichord at age 3, began composing at 5 and touring at 6. Maddeningly, only a few prodigies deliver on their early promise. But luckily for us, as long as there are pianos, these promising musical geniuses keep springing up. The National Museum of American History illuminates the history of the instrument that has inspired these maestros in a fascinating exhibition opening March 9, "PIANO 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos."

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