Earl Wild: He’s still fine-tuning it

DANIEL CARIAGA, Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2005

Earl Wild hobnobbed with Toscanini and Stokowski, George Gershwin and Tennessee Williams. But at 90, it’s not just nostalgia time; the man’s too busy burnishing his pianism.

Earl Wild spends four hours a day at the piano. Practicing. He’s been doing this for a long time ? actually, since he was a boy in Pennsylvania in the 1920s.

In those days, Wild practiced even more. But he learned, he says, to concentrate and focus, and his work time has tightened.


Widely considered an immaculate technician, the pianist says, “I practice for cleanliness. There is nothing worse than dirty piano playing.” He defends his perfectionism casually but firmly, and no one who has heard him in person can dispute the magisterial results. In 71 years, he has made more than 100 recordings (on 20 labels) of the widest possible piano repertory, and these records reflect not only lofty technical standards but a striking musical sophistication and ever-growing maturity. Now, at another milestone, Wild has become, slowly and inexorably, an elder statesman of the piano. This month he celebrates his 90th birthday.

This long musical journey has been an eventful, distinguished but surprisingly low-key one. Wild had important teachers in his native Pittsburgh, including the legendary Egon Petri, who encouraged the budding virtuoso to improvise, a skill that has served him well over the years. He went to New York at 20, joined Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra at 22, spent two years in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Navy Band (flute) and Navy Orchestra (piano) and played at the White House for FDR several times. Altogether, he has performed for six U.S. presidents, from Hoover to Johnson.

Having rejoined the NBC Symphony after the war, he left it in 1946 to work as staff pianist for ABC Radio, later becoming musical advisor to Sid Caesar for three seasons on television in the 1950s. Through all these years, his solo career flourished (he gave the obligatory Town Hall recital debut in 1944), and he has played with all the major American orchestras and their famous conductors, as well as throughout Europe. He remains on the international circuit today.

And, as he did 10 years ago at a comparable landmark, the tall, ebullient and white-haired Wild will share his latest special occasion by playing the piano for friends. Tuesday night in New York’s Carnegie Hall, he is set to appear in his latest solo recital.

Marilyn Horne, the mezzo-soprano who is director of vocal studies at the Music Academy of the West, says, “It is unbelievable that Earl is doing this 90th birthday concert. But more power to him. I love him. I was there for the 80th birthday recital in Carnegie Hall and, afterward, led the audience in singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Earl is a great, great pianist who somehow never was accorded the status he always deserved.”

American composer Ned Rorem, long renowned for his churlish view of the music scene, has this to say: “I first met Earl Wild in Washington, D.C., during the [second world] war. I heard him both publicly and privately. I was 19 and thought he was the best pianist I had heard up until that time. Today I still think he is the best I’ve ever heard.”

And pianist and pedagogue Stewart Gordon, a longtime piano professor at USC and author of a new edition of the Beethoven sonatas, says, “Earl Wild is a legend in the world of pianists. His recordings for Reader’s Digest of the four Rachmaninoff concertos, alas, no longer available, are considered by many pianists to be the quintessential, definitive performance of those works.”

Reports of Wild’s performances in Amsterdam in September and in Charleston, S.C., this month were glowing. Critics in the Netherlands wrote of his “unprecedented youthful flexibility” and called him “the last living example of the great romantic tradition that originated before World War II.” Reviews of his latest CD, “Living History,” on which he plays, for the first time on record, certain works by Bach, Scriabin, Franck and Schumann, have been equally enthusiastic.

Continuing despite setbacks

But the last 18 months have also seen setbacks in the pianist’s health. In September 2004 he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, which kept him away from the piano for many weeks. This fall, after Amsterdam, he returned to the U.S. with the flu and suffered bronchitis that forced him to cancel his regular master classes at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as well as a recital and master classes at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He also had to reschedule a recital in Buffalo, N.Y., although he did play in Charleston on Nov. 8 and gave another recital in Connecticut last Sunday.

Still, these misfortunes have been aberrations in a lifetime of youthful strength, stamina and moderation. Consistency and hard work are habits he has followed for many decades.

Wild is too elegant and discreet to drop names, and over the 30 years I have been talking to him, he has seldom gone beyond the appropriate anecdote to illustrate some point. Recently, though, name-dropping has become a necessity, for he has begun to write his autobiography. His memory seems to be acute, and he says the writing has become a pleasant chore. Having lived through a most colorful midcentury in musical America, he knew some of the most celebrated achievers of the era.

The conductors may be the most memorable. As a youngster, he played with Otto Klemperer in Pittsburgh. Among other conductors he admired were Fritz Reiner and George Szell and two outstanding Americans, Kenneth Schermerhorn and Thomas Schippers. He considers Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski the greatest musicians he ever met.

In postwar New York, he recalls, he attended every one of Toscanini’s rehearsals with the NBC Symphony, whether he was involved or not, and he still praises the Italian conductor’s musical astuteness and no-nonsense approach to every score. He also attended all of Stokowski’s rehearsals when he was a member of the ABC musical team and says today, “Stokowski was the Rimsky-Korsakov of conductors ? all color and wonderful textures.” He also remembers the conductor’s “sensuous nature ? he was the essence of sensuality.”

Wild also knew dozens of his pianistic colleagues. In the 1940s, he was part of a team on a radio program called “Piano Playhouse”; his partners were the jazz pianists Cy Walters and Stan Freeman. They had many guests, one of whom was Liberace, who he says charmed them all.

Living on West 49th Street in New York, Wild was in an apartment building with singers Robert Weede, George London and Mario Lanza; he often accompanied Lanza in the tenor’s pre-Hollywood days.

He was also friendly with Tennessee Williams and the playwright’s then companion, Frank Merlo. He once sold his car to Williams, who took it to Europe. Beatrice Lillie was part of this circle. His connections to the rich and famous continued when he moved to Palm Springs in the 1970s. All these connections will be documented in his memoirs.

As for his professional profile, during World War II and afterward, by an accident of circumstance, Wild became known as a specialist in the pops repertory, particularly in the works of George Gershwin ? this even though he played everything, and still does, in the repertory. (One of the recordings of which he is most proud is of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata.) But he had met and worked with Gershwin in the 1930s and later toured with both Paul Whiteman and Arthur Fiedler, so he was pigeonholed as a Gershwin and Liszt exponent. He played the former’s Concerto in F and the “Rhapsody in Blue” in his Hollywood Bowl debut in 1946, returning 14 more times in subsequent years in similar repertory.

Such typecasting was not entirely inappropriate, for Wild’s fluid technique gives him a signature sound. Many listeners remember his Liszt recitals at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester in 1986, an ear-opening series. Like his now-departed peers Jorge Bolet and Shura Cherkassky, he finds the depth and lyricism, the genuine profundity in Liszt’s quick notes and thundering octaves.

What is his secret? “Keep it simple,” he says. “Don’t worry about the difficulties. Just relax.” His demeanor at the piano shows that he follows his own rules. At his master classes, he encourages students to remain calm and not to fight, but to caress, the piano. His Carnegie Hall program will reiterate the others he has been playing this fall. It is set to begin with his own transcription of an Adagio by Benedetto Marcello, then crest with Beethoven’s imposing D-major Sonata, Opus 10, No. 3, and continue with Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este” and Chopin’s G-minor Ballade. The second half will offer more Chopin ? the A-flat Ballade, the B-flat minor Scherzo and the “Fantaisie-Impromptu” ? and Wild’s showpiece version of the Jarabe Tapatio, the Mexican hat dance.

Optimism with reservations

Wild talks about the current state of the musical world with his characteristically wry and disarming smile. For the most part, he remains optimistic, despite some of the uninformed playing he has been hearing lately. When he was in Los Angeles in June, he spoke between sessions as a judge at the latest Rachmaninoff International Competition. He praised his fellow judges but noted that “there is a lot of banging coming out of those pianos,” even though “some of the players are quite good. But they don’t always see the entire composition as a whole.”

He also thinks some young pianists stay too long with one teacher. “About one year with each teacher is usually enough to get the most benefit from that teacher. Each pianist should be exposed to different ideas and approaches.” He believes all pianists should play in chamber music ensembles, should learn to accompany singers “and should learn as much as possible about many kinds of music, not just piano music.”

Referring to the Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel, Wild talks about the “Brendelization” of pianists ? presumably, overthinking. In his master classes, he stresses straightforwardness: “You don’t want to push and pull like Martha Argerich, who can’t play eight bars in the same tempo.” The New Yorker quoted him in 2003 as calling Chinese pianist Lang Lang “the J. Lo of the piano.”

These days, Wild and his companion of 33 years, record producer Michael Rolland Davis (founder of the Ivory Classics label), live outside Columbus, Ohio. The pianist travels to Carnegie Mellon three times a year for his master classes. He also teaches at his home.

His concert schedule now averages 15 performances a year, as he finds travel by plane “a nightmare.” But he gets around. Last summer, he and Davis attended Santa Fe Opera, where he “adored” the Osvaldo Golijov opera “Ainadamar.” And the couple spend part of each winter in Palm Springs, where they met and where they lived for 10 years.

Will Wild retire from playing the piano? Absolutely not.

“Oh, no,” he told Associated Press this month. “People who are retired die. They go to Florida, play golf for a little while, then drop dead. When people are alive and they are able to do something, they should do something even if it’s basket weaving, because to not do something is to give up…. So never give up.”

Cariaga was a Times staff writer from 1972 to 2003.

‘I practice for cleanliness. There is nothing worse than dirty piano playing.’ ? Earl Wild

Shown advising Carnegie Mellon University graduate student Pei-Wei Lin.

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