Monday, September 24, 2018 1:20 PM
By Charlotte White
Carnegie Hall was my Mecca and I managed to attend many concerts, especially those of the great pianists (Josef Hoffman, Rachmaninoff, Josef Lhevinne) even though it was the Depression and I certainly had no money to purchase tickets. But I had made a few friends who worked as ushers who would sneak me in and always seemed to find me a seat in the orchestra.
On one occasion when I managed to get in to hear the great pianist, Josef Lhevinne , I found myself swept away by his unbelievable technique, his pearls and velvet tone quality and poetic interpretation. I was about 14 or 15 years old and each note took my breath away. I seem to remember he did all of the Chopin Preludes. I felt that in each work a great treasure had been bestowed upon me; I digested and absorbed all as a delicious banquet of beauty, never to be forgotten. Each nuance and phrase went to the core of me. At the end of the concert I rushed backstage to meet this musical god. Of course I was so young and cocky, thinking of myself as the quintessential great young pianist …a promise for the future.
Backstage, I found him surrounded by gushing fans, most of whom looked to me like old ladies, socially important people and well known music critics. He seemed a little tired and bored. As his eyes caught mine, he walked slowly away from the crowd towards me. At that stage of my life, I was a pretty young girl with long red hair, wearing a black velvet beret and reflecting the essence of what I believed was a true artists style! He was already, in my eyes, an old man, but his eyes sparkled when I told him how wonderful his performance had been to me, and then I said with such youthful nerve,
"You know , Mr. Lhevinne, I am a pianist too and I'd like to play for you!"
He smiled and, surprisingly, said, "Of course, that would be fine. Why don't you come to Juilliard on Thursday at 3 and play for me.”
On that Thursday, I appeared at Juilliard, in a very confident mood. He greeted me warmly and asked me to play for him. I don’t quite remember what I played, but if I recall at that time I played a lot of Chopin, Liszt and - now I do remember - I played the Jeux D’eau of Ravel for him as well.
When I finished, he was very enthusiastic but he said, “Why do you paint your pictures so large?”
I had been studying until then with a great pianist of the romantic school, Richard Singer, one of the last of the Romantics. He was a pupil if the legendary Leschetitsky, Busoni and even had been fortunate enough to have had Master classes with Brahms, so I had been engulfed in true Romantic interpretations…very bravura and free in style, as encouraged by my teacher (who always reminded me that I should never forget that I was a musical great, great grandchild of Beethoven, since Beethoven taught Czerny, who taught Leschetitsky, who taught Richard Singer and who eventually taught me!)
So this became my natural style, in which I felt most secure and happy. For me, the variation in tone colors, and making the piano sing with lyrical , poetic phrasing -- graduating up to a powerful and dramatically dynamic resolution --- was deeply engrained in me..
But when I heard Lhevinne’s exquisite velvety tone, and his quiet and easy-looking smooth technical command, I wanted so much to be able to achieve that as well! I felt a little guilty in even thinking of leaving Singer, who had been so wonderful to me. He had given me a scholarship for years since my parents could not afford his big fee of $10 a lesson (considered nothing today, but impossible for us then). My desire to develop and understand different concepts of approaching the piano was stronger than my loyalty, though, and so here I was, playing for Lhevinne with the wish that he might accept me as a pupil.
He then said,
“ I believe in miniatures, rather than the grand Lisztian approach; the most valuable paintings In museums are not the largest and boldest…but very often the little miniatures.
I then drew on all my “chutzpa” and said,
” Mr. Lhevinne I would love to study with you.”
He looked at me in an amused way and said,
” My dear, do you know what my fee is??? It is $40 a lesson.”
This shocked me and I said,
” Oh, I could never afford that!”
He answered, “Well, can’t you get someone to dig it up for you?”
I then called again on my uninhibited chutzpa and said,
” Oh no, I don’t know anyone who could do that….but Mr. Lhevinne, don’t you give scholarships to students you find especially talented? I teach (and that was true, I taught young children after school for $1 a lesson) and when I find a special talent who can’t afford to pay me, I give them a scholarship!!”
He laughed and came towards me to try to kiss me. I must have amused him. He then said,
”Do you have any idea of my expenses? Since I’ve achieved some success, all the Levines in Russia write to me for money! Not only that, but at Juilliard, Ernest Hutchinson (who was then Juilliard President and a competing famous pianist) arrives every day in his limousine with his chauffeur and footman, and I have to do the same to keep up my image.”
He was quiet for a moment and finally said,
”I’ll talk to Rosina ( his wife, co- pianist and financial boss).”
My story ends very happily, since Lhevinne eventually got in touch with me and told me that he and Rosina had decided to give me a scholarship. And so began a whole new world of technical analysis, quite different from what I had previously known - special Lhevinne exercises to build more muscular strength in the weaker 4th and 5th fingers, and a consciousness of relaxed strength from the shoulders without tension. It was a difficult period of unlearning and relearning each movement of fingers and body. Nevertheless, Singer’s romantic influence was deeply engrained in me, and with the added plus of my new Lhevinne technique, I just reserved and added it ultimately to my fuller relationship with the piano.