Can the pianist come out and talk for a minute?
"Absolutely not. All he has time to do is eat, practice and chant," said a friend.
San Francisco is sending to the Tchaikovsky international Piano Competition, in Moscow what it may be assumed is the contest's first black Buddhist plumber. His name is E. Jerome Malry; he used to give little windowside concerts in his modest upstairs apartment; and he announced publicly a few months ago that he intended to win, thank you.
"To even go to the competition is ridiculous, considering my experience." Malry told a newspaperman here a few months ago, reasonably, "but I feel very confident. I'm going to win. I know what I have to do to win, and it's just a question of doing it."
So he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and chants. He practices yoga. He fixes breakfast. (He likes grits. Also eggs and fresh orange juice, for which he buys oranges by the crate.) Then he sits at the piano four hours and works, and reworks each piece, now with the metronome, now without. He breaks for lunch and then goes back to the piano until 6:30 p.m., when he chants again. Then he plays until midnight.
This has been going on all year. The plumbing business is being neglected.
Malry is 28 years old and has spent most of his life pursuing a private sort of musical achievement that he has referred to, in disparaging moments, as "my noncareer." He was born in Los Angeles, the son of a teacher mother and a second-generation plumber father, and was dropped into piano lessons at age 5 when his mother enrolled in some university classes and needed a place to park him. There was a brief flirtation with the violin, but by the time he was 9, Malry was back at the piano.
Malry's teacher, a dedicated woman named Frances Pierson Brumbaugh, stayed with him for nine years, and when she died at 80 in 1967, she willed him her huge sheet music collection and her Mason and Hamlin grand piano, which he still plays. Malry performed with the Los Angeles Southeast Symphony in 1965, and went on to graduate in music from the University of Southern California, doing a recital or a guest engagement here and there; at California universities, Midwestern colleges, the J. Cochran theater in London.
But he had no patron and not much income, and a man has to pay the rent. So Malry worked as a plumber. As he explained awhile ago, "I'll do anything to feed my face." He moved to San Francisco five years ago, took another music degree from San Francisco State University, and with the exception of an occasional local performance and a stint on the cruise ship U.S. Mariposa (he performed en route to Alaska, Canada and Hawaii), most of Malry's playing has been for himself.
The last American to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition was the young Texan named Van Cliburn, who took first prize 20 years ago, the first time the international contest was held. Malry will be one of 26 Americans in a field of 60 competitors. He was admitted to the competition, a close friend and musical associate said, on the basis of "some heavyweight recommendations" from the music department heads of San Francisco State, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Davis.
Malry will have to play in front of 6,000 people in Moscow, which is about 5,950 more than he is used to.
He allows as how this is a problem. "My biggest problem in Moscow is going to be my lack of performing experience," he was quoted in an interview a few weeks ago. He has been working up to a big audienc: In April, just after the word got out that this single-minded plumber had been accepted to the Tchaikovsky, Malry held a recital at the Old First Church. The following month he played at the San Francisco Opera House - to a standing ovation in proper hometown-booster fashion. He was so nervous that from the audience one could see his hands shake, and his playing went sour in sports.
But that's what the work is for, and the long hours and the Buddhist meditation that his friends say keeps him calm.
Malry's friends have been doing his laundry, bringing him meals, and running interference for him every time somebody tries to pry him away from the piano. "Everybody nationwide is breathing down his neck," explained a woman friend who has known Malry since they were both music students in Los Angeles together.
The competition begins Thursday. Malry leaves for Moscow today.