In 1979, Washington pianist Gita Karasik invited a friend to her recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York. As a result, she has just returned from two weeks in China, where she was the first American pianist to have a recital tour.
The friend was Art Rosen, president of the Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York, and he explained that he couldn't come because he was entertaining a Chinese delegation. "Bring them along," said Karasik, and Rosen showed up at the concert hall with about a dozen visitors from China.
"After the recital, they came backstage and we talked for a while, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I didn't think anything of it until an invitation came to visit China," Karasik recalls. "I accepted on the spur of the moment. By coincidence, the invitation was for a time when I was planning a tour of the Far East. While I was in China, I had a performance and a master class almost every day, with just two days of rest. I had to bring summer and winter clothes, because I ran into temperatures that ranged from 95 degrees in Singapore to 15 in Peking. Japan was freezing, and Hong Kong was tropical. But I have never had an experience like it, and I'm hoping to go back again next year."
What she found in China, besides an audience that she wants to visit again, was a taste of what she calls "the expanded moment," a mystical concept with roots in Eastern philosophy: the moment when everything falls into place and time stands still. "It has to do with inner order," she says, "and you can find it in Chinese poetry and painting. I could work on one passage of music 2,000 times to achieve it -- and if we reach it once every 15 years, it's enough to keep up going. If anyone has mastered that, it's the Chinese culture; they have understood it and lived it for thousands of years."
This tradition of inner discipline, she thinks, may help to explain the extraordinary playing she heard from some young Chinese pianists she taught in master classes: "There was a 12-year-old boy in Peking who just knocked me out when he started to play. He played a Weber rondo with a sense of style that was amazing, perfect pace, a completely mature understanding of form. Then a 15-year-old girl got up and played Chopin with the tenderness, fluidity and passion of a true Pole; it would have made Chopin weep." She also found some of these qualities in the audiences, and was amazed at their ability to come to terms immediately with unfamiliar music.
One result of the trip is that the 31-year-old pianist, who has won half a dozen major competitions and performed with orchestras that range from the Boston Pops to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, is wondering whether she wants to join the piano jet set. "My teacher, Rosina Lhevinne, wanted to take me into her home when I was 11 and get me started as a child prodigy," Karasik says, "but my father didn't want to. He said, 'Let her be a child.' Then, in the last few years, there has been talk of going with a very large management and getting into the limelight. But since China, I have been wondering: Do I want to do it? There is something very attractive and something very frightening about the thought of doing 175 concerts a year all over the world. It would be great for the ego, but what does it do to the music -- or to you?
"I have a friend who was beginning a major career; he played one night in London, the next night in Munich, and then on to New York, where he collapsed. Now, I ask myself whether I want to get on that path -- but I would like at least to have the chance to make that decision."
The China tour gave her a chance to experience music-making in a new context -- free of the pressures and paraphernalia of Western concert life. "You don't have to think about people from the big management offices or influential critics out in the audience," she says, "and you don't run into the kind of preconceived ideas that are a part of performing in Western society. I don't think the audiences came in with any a priori feelings about how the 'Appassionata' should be interpreted, and I didn't get the feeling that I had to play the warhorses to keep the audience interested. I can remember when I told a former manager that I wanted to end a program with Schubert's Opus Posthumous Sonata, and she said, 'You'll never build a career ending programs with that.' It's a very contemplative work, rich in sound but not virtuoso in its appeal, and it requires enormous concentration from the audience for a long time. The halls were packed -- standing room only with people standing halfway down the aisles -- but the people were so attentive and responsive you could hear a pin drop. You can take as much time as you want with those audiences: they have a special inner discipline, and I hope that they don't lose it as they increase their contacts with Westerners."
A major influence of her career has been her father, Monia Karasik, who played viola in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for many years under Pierre Monteux. "He brought me to Rosina Lhevinne for training," she recalls, "but he gave me much of my early training himself. Perhaps there is something special for a pianist in being trained partly by a string player. He would give me advice based on string bowing techniques rather than the detailed instructions on what to do with this finger and that muscle that you get from piano teachers. Or he would tell me things like '30 seconds before you come to this passage, relax.' I have an interest in Yoga that I got from him, and when I think about a career I always have his advice in mind: 'Find what you love and do the best you can.'"
Music is a family matter for the Karasiks, all of whom are or were professional musicians. Gita Karasik's mother, Bereni, is a pianist; her brother Michael is a cellist and her sister Eva is a violinist. Her husband, Lee Caplin, is a painter, not a musician, and he also has a law degree. For some time, after she had some unhappy experiences with other managers, he became her manager. "He got me more engagements in two days than my previous manager had been able to do in two months," she says. "Then he became an assistant to Livingston Biddle at the National Endowment for the Arts and he had to stop managing me in the United States because of possible conflict of interest. But he still manages my career overseas, and I have made a Latin American tour and two tours of the Far East in the last few years."