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Now he hears the big picture

Octogenarian pianist Earl Wild says age has brought him musical wisdom -- all the more reason not to retire.

November 10, 2002|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

At 86, Earl Wild is often called "the last of the great Romantic pianists." Born in Pittsburgh, he played professionally as a teenager in the Pittsburgh Symphony under Otto Klemperer. He joined Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937, and it was a radio broadcast of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1942 that made his name.

Wild's recording career includes almost 100 recordings on 20 labels, and a 1997 Grammy for "Earl Wild: The Romantic Master." He just kicked off the Rock Hotel PianoFest, mixing masters, emerging players, new repertoire and affordable ticket prices in New York City, and he plays next Sunday at Shumei Hall in Pasadena. We caught up with him by cell phone when he was leaving a gig in Pittsburgh and heading home to Columbus, Ohio.

You were last in Los Angeles as a judge for the first Rachmaninoff Piano Competition in April. That competition ended in controversy because the judges disqualified Alessio Cioni, 23, of Italy in the final round. Any second thoughts about that?

Wild: There was no hanky-panky on this. It was a unanimous decision. Except for one [piece], he was totally unprepared. He was attractive and wonderfully naive and sweet. Unfortunately he couldn't play. I told him afterward, "Go home, don't let yourself out of the house until you're ready." He was cute, but it's not enough to be cute.

How much do you play now?

Wild: Just about 15 recitals a year. That's enough. Traveling has become so horrible, especially if you're tall. [Wild is 6-feet-1.] You get into some of these airports it's horrible. I always thought in my old age you'd be able to float from one to place to another.

Do you notice differences in the way pianists play now and their playing in earlier generations?

Wild: I don't think it's changed. People don't look for the more musical things. They miss a lot of the joy of music. But you don't pick those things out of the air. That comes from being older. You see from the beginning to the end of the music. When you're young, you see things in sections. Putting things together, that takes time.

You just played a recital as part of the Rock Hotel PianoFest, on a bill with one of your students. How did that come about?

Wild: Chris Williamson, the rock promoter, had been a student at Juilliard. He had been a pianist, got into the rock business, promoted Madonna and other big acts. He decided that recitals in New York were starting to go downhill. They have the same soloists all of the time. Not much interesting programming. So many old pieces of music being played. So he thought of trying to rejuvenate them. He has 27-some people playing on the series. He asked if I would do the first one. I said yes, anything to bring back recitals in New York.

I played pieces that I like. I told the audience I hoped they would continue to go to those concerts and tell their friends about them. Young people need a place to play.

Some people feel that your technique was as formidable as Vladimir Horowitz's, but you never captured the limelight the way he and others did. Do you feel cheated about that?

Wild: I don't mind that. Europeans who came here were very publicity wise. I wasn't. I was from Pittsburgh. I liked music. I loved music. People in this country were always very kind to the foreign musicians who came here, which is all right. I was never jealous. Thank God/

What did you do in your long career that people might not know about?

Wild: I worked for Sid Caesar. He heard I could improvise, wanted to see me. I didn't want to go. Why do that? It would ruin my concerts. But he was such a good guy, a nice man. I liked him. He said, "Play me some Spanish grandee music, I'm looking out of my coach." So I played something. He liked it. He said he wanted to do a takeoff on opera. "The cast, except for one person, can't read music. How should I do it?" I said, "Take popular songs that everyone knows and you put them in Mozart or Verdi settings. After about six or seven bars, everyone would recognize the song." I worked with him for about five years.

Any plans to retire?

Wild: Unless I have to stop, I certainly won't stop, and I hope I don't have to stop. Someone asked me, they heard I'd like to die playing the piano. "Is that true?" Well, it's better than going to Canada.


Wild in concert

Who: Pianist Earl Wild

When: 3 p.m., next Sunday

Where: Shumei Hall, 2430 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

Price: Free

Contact: (626) 584-8841

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