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He's still fine-tuning it

Earl Wild hobnobbed with Toscanini and Stokowski, George Gershwin and Tennessee Williams. But at 90, it's not just nostalgia time; the man's too busy burnishing his pianism.

November 27, 2005|Daniel Cariaga | Special to The Times

EARL WILD spends four hours a day at the piano. Practicing. He's been doing this for a long time -- actually, since he was a boy in Pennsylvania in the 1920s.

In those days, Wild practiced even more. But he learned, he says, to concentrate and focus, and his work time has tightened.

Widely considered an immaculate technician, the pianist says, "I practice for cleanliness. There is nothing worse than dirty piano playing." He defends his perfectionism casually but firmly, and no one who has heard him in person can dispute the magisterial results. In 71 years, he has made more than 100 recordings (on 20 labels) of the widest possible piano repertory, and these records reflect not only lofty technical standards but a striking musical sophistication and ever-growing maturity. Now, at another milestone, Wild has become, slowly and inexorably, an elder statesman of the piano. This month he celebrates his 90th birthday.

This long musical journey has been an eventful, distinguished but surprisingly low-key one. Wild had important teachers in his native Pittsburgh, including the legendary Egon Petri, who encouraged the budding virtuoso to improvise, a skill that has served him well over the years. He went to New York at 20, joined Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra at 22, spent two years in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Navy Band (flute) and Navy Orchestra (piano) and played at the White House for FDR several times. Altogether, he has performed for six U.S. presidents, from Hoover to Johnson.

Having rejoined the NBC Symphony after the war, he left it in 1946 to work as staff pianist for ABC Radio, later becoming musical advisor to Sid Caesar for three seasons on television in the 1950s. Through all these years, his solo career flourished (he gave the obligatory Town Hall recital debut in 1944), and he has played with all the major American orchestras and their famous conductors, as well as throughout Europe. He remains on the international circuit today.

And, as he did 10 years ago at a comparable landmark, the tall, ebullient and white-haired Wild will share his latest special occasion by playing the piano for friends. Tuesday night in New York's Carnegie Hall, he is set to appear in his latest solo recital.

Marilyn Horne, the mezzo-soprano who is director of vocal studies at the Music Academy of the West, says, "It is unbelievable that Earl is doing this 90th birthday concert. But more power to him. I love him. I was there for the 80th birthday recital in Carnegie Hall and, afterward, led the audience in singing 'Happy Birthday.' Earl is a great, great pianist who somehow never was accorded the status he always deserved."

American composer Ned Rorem, long renowned for his churlish view of the music scene, has this to say: "I first met Earl Wild in Washington, D.C., during the [second world] war. I heard him both publicly and privately. I was 19 and thought he was the best pianist I had heard up until that time. Today I still think he is the best I've ever heard."

And pianist and pedagogue Stewart Gordon, a longtime piano professor at USC and author of a new edition of the Beethoven sonatas, says, "Earl Wild is a legend in the world of pianists. His recordings for Reader's Digest of the four Rachmaninoff concertos, alas, no longer available, are considered by many pianists to be the quintessential, definitive performance of those works."

Reports of Wild's performances in Amsterdam in September and in Charleston, S.C., this month were glowing. Critics in the Netherlands wrote of his "unprecedented youthful flexibility" and called him "the last living example of the great romantic tradition that originated before World War II." Reviews of his latest CD, "Living History," on which he plays, for the first time on record, certain works by Bach, Scriabin, Franck and Schumann, have been equally enthusiastic.

Continuing despite setbacks

BUT the last 18 months have also seen setbacks in the pianist's health. In September 2004 he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, which kept him away from the piano for many weeks. This fall, after Amsterdam, he returned to the U.S. with the flu and suffered bronchitis that forced him to cancel his regular master classes at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as well as a recital and master classes at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He also had to reschedule a recital in Buffalo, N.Y., although he did play in Charleston on Nov. 8 and gave another recital in Connecticut last Sunday.

Still, these misfortunes have been aberrations in a lifetime of youthful strength, stamina and moderation. Consistency and hard work are habits he has followed for many decades.

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