Pianist Abbey Simon has been described by the New York Times as a "super-virtuoso" and one of the last direct links to the old Romantic tradition of playing. But he hasn't been heard in Southern California since the late 1980s.
Now he will return under the sponsorship of the Fullerton Friends of Music and Fullerton College to play a recital of Chopin, Schumann and Beethoven on Saturday at the Fullerton College Campus Theatre.
Why doesn't he come around more often? "That's your fault," he joked in a recent phone interview from the offices of his New York representatives. "Completely. Although there's hardly any place I haven't played in the L.A. area."
Simon was born to an educated but nonmusical family in New York in 1922. "My family was--and still is--doctors and dentists," he said. "In New York your chances of being treated by someone in my family is high. My son should have been a pianist. He's a doctor in Geneva. His name is Jonathan."
His wife's name is Dina. "I can't even remember how long we've been married," he said. "A long time. She adores music, but she's not an active pianist."
They live in Geneva, Switzerland, but remain U.S. citizens. "There's no earthly reason to change," he said.
Simon himself was never in doubt about pursuing a career in music. Born with perfect pitch, he began piano studies at 5 and by 8 was accepted by the legendary pianist Josef Hoffmann, who taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
"It was a glorious period," he recalled. "We were brought up in a very spoiled fashion. We were taken care of in the most wonderful way. It was an atmosphere no conservatory has any longer in this country or anywhere else, for that matter.
"I remember, being a child, I heard the doorbell ring. Someone asked for a 'Mr. Abbey Simon.' That was me. In came a Steinway piano. It was that sort of place. And stimulating. Everyone else was so great. You learned as much if not more from the other students as you did from your teachers."
After graduating, Simon won the prestigious Naumburg Award and made his debut at Town Hall in New York. Europe beckoned, and he made his debut tour of Europe in 1949, where he stayed for a number of years.
"I remember, I looked around one day and discovered we were there for 18 years. I said to my wife, 'It's time we bought furniture."'
He has lived in Geneva most of his life and maintains an apartment in New York but jokes that because of his travel schedule, "home is a Boeing."
Having recorded six CDs of solo works by Chopin, the complete piano works of Ravel and all the works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninoff and Chopin, Simon has acquired a reputation for playing Romantic composers.
"That's due to the exigencies of the record companies," he said. "I always loved Chopin, but I never intended to record 24 etudes or to record 19 nocturnes. The same for Ravel. I never intended to play every note he wrote.
"It goes on like that. Suddenly, whether you like it or not, you're labeled. I'm not complaining. Every once in a while, though, someone seems taken aback that I play Beethoven, Mozart and Bach."
Simon believes young musicians today have a tougher time making a career than he did. For one thing, the numbers are so much higher.
"When I was a student, the music schools in the universities were scarce and rather poor. Today every university has a performing arts department. Today every college, no matter how provincial, has not only a music school but also people who play the repertoire and competent and knowledgeable teachers."
Competitions have proliferated.
"When I won the Naumburg prize, that was the only contest there was," he said. "I didn't even know there were European competitions. The Naumburg was the summit. Today there are hundreds of piano competitions."
He's not joking about the numbers. He once asked a Dutch writer, who was assembling an encyclopedia of music competitions, how many international piano contests there were.
"He said, 'There are 170.' 'No,' I said, 'I mean this year.' He said, '170.'
"This was about three or four years ago. Most give five or six prizes. Do the math. It's very cruel."
It also stifles individuality, he said. "As a judge at most of the world's competitions, I can assure you it's not a happy world to hear everybody coming out and playing the same way. Today, every young pianist has to play 'correctly.' They want to play winningly. It's a very sad situation. It's gotten to the point where managers get sort of nervous when you say he's won this or that."
He suggests that young musicians forget about the odds and concentrate on finding a niche.
"Everyone has to make his own career in his or her own way. Life would be very simple if I said, 'You do this, this and that.' It's up to everyone to perfect themselves on their own level."
Pianist Abbey Simon plays works by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Prokofiev on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the Fullerton College Campus Theatre, 321 E. Chapman Ave. $15. ($10 for students and seniors.) (714) 992-7433.