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October, 2001
Editorial Musings
The Mature Performer

Recently I was skimming through Stewart Gordon’s book, “Etudes for Piano Teachers”, which just came out in paperback, and my attention was drawn to several sentences in the chapter “Feux Follets” where he discusses performing necessities, beginning with charisma:

“Particularly interesting are those artists whose charismatic index has soared with maturity, often with even middle or late years. These artists have often sustained a career over the years, on a less spectacular basis, on qualities other than the instant appeal of this type. They suddenly find their index rising rapidly as they begin to project such qualities as maturity, authority, and the simple fact of having successfully met life’s problems square on and emerging beautifully with strength, wisdom, and compassion.”
Having just read a new online biography of Dame Myra Hess I though of how this quality was wonderfully demonstrated in her life, who began her “finest hour” along with England, when she was in her fifties during the Second World War. Her leadership in organizing and participating in the concerts in London throughout the war, despite the bombings, will always be remembered as one of the grandest achievements in the life of any concert pianist, man or woman.

This ability to become a greater artist as one gets older is not unusual in the lives of pianists, particularly with women. If you are in the profession you may say, “but of course”; but how many young pianists, or the general public for that matter, realize this? I believe that many people think a pianist’s career is like a sports career, over by the time you’re forty, or at least you better have “made it” by then. In many ways the demands are similar: good health and stamina are a necessity, along with early training and diligent and routine practicing throughout the career. As long as injuries are avoided it is not unusual for pianists to continue to concertize late in life, even their eighties.

Did you know that the great teacher, Rosina Lhevinne, returned to a solo concert career in her 80’s after a break of over 50 years? The January/February 1977 Clavier magazine contained an interview Ylda Novak had with her at Aspen, Colorado. For background, Madam Lhevinne (1880-1976) graduated in 1898 from the Moscow Conservatory with the Gold Medal, a rarity for a woman, then or now, and just days later married Josef Lhevinne (1874-1944) who had briefly been her teacher when she was nine. By 1891 she had decided that the only concertizing she would do would be in partnership with her husband, which she did up until her husbands death in 1944. But by the 1960's her friends had convinced her to return to the concert stage as a solo artist, which she began with four concerto appearances with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Before her late career was over she had recorded the Mozart Twenty-first Concerto and the Chopin E minor Concerto. The Clavier article states:

For her, as for Arthur Rubinstein, age was no deterrent to an active performing career. She mentioned that she has received literally hundreds of letters from women pianists who had given up performing in order to raise their families, or in order to concentrate on their teaching -- all with the same message: "My return to the concert stage had inspired them to resume their own performing careers."... Madame Lhevinne, who always performed by memory, recalled that Dame Myra Hess had come backstage to congratulate her after a performance and had berated herself with mock slaps to her own gace, exclaiming, "Rosina, I admire you so much. You still play by memory, but I must now use the music or else I cannot sleep the night before I play."

These are only two of many amazing women who maintained their concert skills throughout their life. They may have chosen to spend more time at home or teaching during child-rearing years, but the maturity and stability gained during that time often merely enriched their musical offering when they return to the stage. I think that it is important that women pianists in their 20's and 30's realize this potential future when making life changing choices. If they have begun a concert career by their early 20's, which all of the historical pianists listed in this site had done, then the technical base is possible to return to after some time off.

For those of you who enjoyed playing the piano for pleasure in your youth, this realization of regaining skills in maturity should be particularly encouraging. I am reminded of this weekly when I listen to the progress of a retired school teacher in her 60's who had not touched the piano seriously for 50 years, since she was 15, but now, through consistent practicing, finds her life enriched by the challenge and pleasure of recreating piano's great classics. And not only her life is enriched, but those around her -- and isn't that that the essential reason to play the piano, not for illusive fame, but for the enhancement of your corner of the world?

by Rose Eide-Altman , editor
published October 1, 2001
copyright 2001 PianoWomen.com

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