This weekend, the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival got started at the Clarice Smith Center with a recital by Santiago Rodriguez, who won the competition in 1975 and now chairs its international jury. Charles T. Downey reviewed.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, I wrote a piece about the Kapell competition, which returns after five years — it’s usually quadriennial, but the financial crisis of 2008 caused a year’s postponement. It’s named for William Kapell, a colorful and brilliant musician who died achingly young, at 31, when the airplane he was on crashed near San Francisco, almost 60 years ago. The competition honors its namesake by including a focus on American composers — Kapell was engaged with living composers as well as the great dead — and, this year, by presenting a friend and colleague of Kapell’s, Leon Fleisher, in a concert and a master class on July 12 and 13.
I coauthored Leon Fleisher’s memoir, “My Nine Lives,” and in talking about Kapell he made him come alive. I’m citing the relevant passage below, in honor of both Fleisher and Kapell, looking ahead to an exciting two weeks.
Above: Rare video footage of William Kapell at the keyboard. The first round of the Kapell Competition will start on Tuesday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center.
From My Nine Lives, by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette:
“We all looked up to Kapell. You couldn’t not look up to Kapell. He was a compact mass of raw, breathtaking talent. He was probably the greatest American pianist who ever lived. Listen to his recording of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz to see what I mean: he makes this formidable piece sound almost easy, taking time to bring out details where many pianists are just struggling to get through it, while at the same time delivering something that crackles with virtuosity. He was all of twenty-two when he recorded it. [Artur] Schnabel [ed.: Fleisher’s teacher] had tremendous regard for him. He was once listening to the radio and heard a recording of the Beethoven B-flat concerto and thought it was his own, but then found out that it was Willy’s. That story cut me to the quick with a stab of pure jealousy.
“Willy was a cocky little guy. He walked with his palms facing backward,rather than parallel to his body. I eventually realized that all pianists walk that way—we spend so much time with our hands in that position at the keyboard—but Willy was the first person in whom I noticed it. When he was starting out, he made a huge splash with pieces like the Khachaturian Concerto. It’s a showy, virtuosic, and really pretty cruddy piece, but Willy played it with such panache it sounded like Ben-Hur: huge, epic, over-the-top. He continued to push himself and develop and explore so that by the end of his career—which was cruelly curtailed by a plane crash when he was thirty-one—he was playing Schubert sonatas, pieces of great nobility and subtlety that weren’t showy at all. It was just the opposite of my own trajectory, since I started with the Viennese greats under Schnabel, and it took me a while to open up to the likes of Ravel or the perhaps too popular Tchaikovsky.
“Willy was good-looking and pockmarked and forcefully opinionated. He didn’t hold back. He could be devastating. When I was going through a period of being very free with my arms and in my motions when I played, he’d say, There you go, looking like a fat-assed bird. He went up to Gary [Graffman] once after a concert and told him he had played like a pig, and walked away. But he could be equally vehement in his warmth when he liked something you did. And he really tried to help us. Not only by giving us advice or having us listen to recordings of Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin—though he did do those things—but also by taking an active interest in our careers. He had a high regard for Eugene Istomin and thought he was underrated, and he used to push people to hire him. In fact, he bugged Eugene Ormandy about it so much that Ormandy finally said to him, ‘Look, if you mention him to me again I won’t engage you next year, either.’ But eventually Ormandy did perform quite a lot with Eugene, so Willy’s machinations may have had some effect.”
[NB: In the 1980s, Eugene Istomin ran the University of Maryland Piano Competition for a couple of years; it was he who changed the competition’s name to honor his late friend.]