Besides looking like classical music's storybook couple, Misha and Cipa Dichter seem to boast the things that complete the picture: a deeply shared family life with two teen-age sons, an apple-laden country retreat one hour from their posh New York apartment overlooking Central Park, a cantankerous antique car and a frisky springer spaniel named Mercedes.
But that's not all. The Dunne and Didion of the concert world--they play a recital tonight at Ambassador Auditorium--are a career team, duo-pianists. And, somehow, they manage to stay married.
"It's not easy," jokes Misha on the line from New York, with Cipa in an adjoining room laughing into another telephone. "Sometimes we have ferocious arguments. Once, the battle over how to play a certain phrase flared so out of control we almost canceled the engagement."
Cipa interjects lightly, in her soft Portuguese accent: "Remember, though, we've been at it a long time." She refers to the couple's student days at the Juilliard School, more than two decades ago.
"On our first date Misha asked if I would like to come up and play four hands. What a line that was!"
"Yes," he says, "and I remember what we played: Ravel's 'Mother Goose' Suite."
While the former Angeleno and his Brazilian-born partner, both 42, began by playing four hands--they married in 1968, two years after he took the silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow--the emphasis at first was on Misha's career.
But even while establishing himself on the concert circuit, he introduced Cipa as his two-piano partner in 1972, "secretly getting us booked at Hollywood Bowl," he says, "and springing it on her as a surprise."
Misha still has the primary career--he plays 100 performances a year to their 20 duo outings. This hardly allows competition to enter the picture. Rather, they are intensely identified with each other.
"The first time Cipa played a solo concerto," Misha recalls, "I stood in the wings with my heart pounding madly. Nerves.
"Not that I lacked faith in her. To the contrary--I always knew how good she was. In fact, every time we undertook a performance together I had to talk her into it."
Cipa concurs. " 'I can't do that' was my standard answer to Misha's urgings. The truth is, I had a lot of growing to do. But no more. Today I don't need to beg off."
Their heavy-duty program at Ambassador--which includes two-piano versions of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn and Bernstein's transcription of Copland's "El Salon Mexico"--requires equal partners.
"At the moment of truth," says Cipa, referring to their actual performance, "there's no difference in rank between us."
But when they appear with an orchestra, playing such works as Mendelssohn's or Poulenc's Double Concerto, the conductor invariably appoints Misha as the spokesman, looking to him for the nod of approval to begin a piece. Cipa says that she understands the reason ("conductors are more familiar with him") and thus finds it a natural choice.
"Even so, you should see the looks I get from her," says Misha, chuckling. "They speak volumes."
The subject of Itzhak and Tobi Perlman, friends of the Dichters who also met at Juilliard, comes up. They also began together as violin students. After marriage, however, theirs became a strictly single-career family.
"The fact that Itzhak is a superstar doesn't explain or determine anything," Cipa says. "Tobi made a pact with him to give up her performing. I could never have done that. Not after all the work and all the years it took to get where I am."
Exactly what allows the mutual empathy that feeds the Dichters' artistic satisfaction as a duo is something they have not thought about.
For his part, Misha says he likes "to be the nurturing one. She appeals to my instinctive need to help in a worthy cause, namely, uncovering her talent. Also she challenges me to prove her wrong, to prove that she can do it."
For her part, Cipa confesses that their "success comes from the truest form of intimacy--honesty with each other. His presence both helps and intimidates me. He's a severe listener. He uses the same standard for me as himself. And because we matured together, there's a certain amount of mind-reading that goes on.
"Call it togetherness."