MARY KUNZ GOLDMAN, News Classical Music Critic © The Buffalo News Inc., October 21, 2005
Earl Wild has to be the only concert artist on Earth who ends an interview by saying, “Be good, now.”
But then, there’s no one else even remotely like him.
Wild, who turns 90 this fall, belongs on any list of top piano virtuosi. But he is a rare torch-bearer for the 19th century piano tradition. If he thinks the music would sound better in a different key, he changes it. If he thinks it’s missing something, he might add something. He also throws himself into the old art of improvising, coming up with dazzling variations on, say, the tunes from Disney’s “Snow White.” Wild will be celebrating his birthday with a gala concert at Carnegie Hall. First, though, he’ll be giving Buffalo a sneak preview.
He is performing Tuesday night at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church as the kickoff for the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series. Now is the time to get in on this treat — for $150, you enjoy five recitals, all featuring world-class artists. (For the complete 2005-2006 Tick lineup, see below.)
On the phone, Wild is a pleasure to speak with. He’s on the quiet side, but he says what he thinks, and he’s generous with his time. “Can you speak up?” he says. “There are jackhammers outside.”
What drew you to improvise at a time when most pianists didn’t?
I started when I was 8. I discovered I could play a Paderewski minuet in the style of Ravel. I find that improvisation can be quite marvelous. When you’re improvising, you lose everything. Everything goes. You don’t write it down. I’ve always liked it, and I’ve always admired people who could do it.
Could you tell us about the time you put in as house pianist for NBC?
I did everything! I was taken right from school to NBC. The second week I was there, I was put into the Toscanini orchestra, playing the celeste. So I had a marvelous time. Toscanini liked me, which was fortunate. Also, I did popular themes and children’s programs, all sorts of things. And all week, I did chamber music for an hour. This went on for a long time.
Why did Toscanini like you?
The first time I met him, I was playing the celeste in “Iberia,” by Debussy. I had never heard it, and when it came time for me to come in, I didn’t play, I didn’t know. He screamed at me and said I was sleeping. Then he said he wanted the celeste moved out front. So they put it out front, right in front of him.
I had some cologne on, and as he went past, he smelled it. He patted me on the cheek. And he never said anything unkind to me after that.
What cologne was it?
Afrodasia! A real stinky one! (Laughs.) If you wore cologne they thought you were either a rich Brazilian or an Italian.
What pianists did you grow up admiring?
They might say things about Paderewski, but he did very good things. He was a great pianist. Rachmaninov of course was super. Gieseking at one time was super. There were a whole chain of them who were quite wonderful, mostly all Europeans. Right now we’re having an explosion of Chinese pianists.
What will you play here?
I’m going to play my transcription of the Marcello Adagio. Bach transcribed it from an oboe concerto, but it was too high. I put it down a third. The quality of tone is so much better — it sounds so human. Otherwise, you get that twinkly-boo sound. Then after the Marcello, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10, No. 3. Because of the adagio — that’s one of the great adagios ever written. It’s quite wonderful.
After that I’m going to do “The Fountains of the Villa D’Este” by Liszt. I make my amendations to it.
Some people get uptight about amendations.
Some people get uptight about making fudge!
Everything was much more flexible in the old days than it is now. There was a period when piano teachers took over, and it was a great curse.
Any more to tell us about your Buffalo program?
I’m also going to play four big Chopin pieces, the Ballade in G Minor, the Scherzo in B Flat Minor, the Ballade in A Flat, and the Fantaisie-Impromptu.
And I’m going to end with the Mexican Hat Dance.