On the morning of Oct. 29, 1953, a DC-6 trying to land at the fog-ridden San Francisco airport crashed into a nearby hill, killing 19 persons.
One victim was pianist William Kapell, returning from a concert tour in Australia. Kapell, at 31, was widely regarded as the greatest of the generation of pianists that developed in this country in the 1940s -- including artists like Eugene Istomin, Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman.
A few hours later, a telephone rang in New York. The call was to Istomin. He was being asked to inform the family of the tragedy.
"The people who were working directly with him felt that they could not do it," recalled Istomin last week. "And it was a matter of my personal business. I was his closest friend. We were brothers -- even with the complications, because we were also rivals -- but he was always loyal." So it fell to Istomin to go to Kapell's wife, Anna Lou.
"I have often thought, why him and not me?" recalls Istomin.
*This is part of why now, 33 years later, the first William Kapell Competition is the centerpiece of the University of Maryland International Piano Festival. Istomin is taking it on for the first time as artistic director.
Preliminary rounds in the competition began Thursday, and will continue with master classes and concerts at College Park. On Saturday, the three finalists will compete in a concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with the National Symphony, under Julius Rudel.
This is the 16th such Maryland competition. Among the noted winners of the past are Emanuel Ax, who was very young when he got a third in the first competition, and Enrique Graf, who won a first in 1978. Both pianists will participate this year.
Last night, Graf played a concert and Ax will perform on Tuesday. Other judges for the finals are to be pianists Anton Kuerti, Rafael Orozco, Jean-Bernard Pommier, James Tocco and Alexander Toradze, as well as conductor Rudel. Thirty-five contestants applied to participate this year. First prize is $15,000, and among the other awards for the winner are an engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Phillips Collection.
When Istomin, himself a winner of the cherished Leventritt Competition, was asked last year to give renewed vitality to the annual Maryland competition, one of his first decisions was to rename it. "I called Anna Lou to be sure it was all right with her," he recalled, "and that was it."
The competition is intended to be a memorial of sorts to Kapell, who would now be 64, and whose electric, perfectionist playing is known almost exclusively by the matchless handful of recordings that he made -- all of them for RCA Victor, in the grandest days of that label.
Kapell was an extraordinary pianist.
"Of us all, he was the best pianist," said Istomin.
About Kapell, Gary Graffman declared unabashedly in his book, "I Really Should Be Practicing": "Willy set an impeccable musical example for all of us. doubtedly the most important, as well as the most successful, pianist of his generation, and I occasionally find myself even now . . . wondering, when I hear someone play a particular piece, how Willy would have done it."
Naming the Maryland competition after Kapell, however, is not just a matter of sentiment.
*The kind of musician and man that he was are, in their ways, ideal symbols of what the most demanding standards are all about. As Istomin wrote in the festival program, "There never was, nor can there ever be, a better model for the young, the bright and the gifted than William Kapell."
Everybody who knew him talks about his concentration, his discipline -- and tenacity in overcoming obstacles, including physical ones. "He had small hands," Istomin said. "His fingers were short." Nor, he added, did he flinch "at taking on the big shots."
Kapell's wife recalled that no less a figure than George Szell did something that enraged him during a concert that he attended. "So Willy went back and chewed out Szell. And I think he realized that if he did it, he wouldn't have a chance to perform with him again."
*There was also an uncompromising aspect in the way he dealt with friends. Graffman related that the day after his own second Carnegie Hall recital, in 1950, Kapell told him, " ceeded to tell me why, leaving no grace note unturned. In general, he diagnosed, the problem was that I was getting lazy, and in fact he had heard from Eugene that I hadn't been practicing as seriously as I should . . . .simply informing me as to what I had to decide, since I was already 22, and not getting any younger."
like a pig.
RCA has just reissued digital remasterings of two of the great Kapell performances, with amazingly fine sound, given their age.
The more famous of the performances is the classic version of Khachaturian Piano Concerto, done with the Boston Symphony under the legendary Serge Koussevitzky. Performing this work, recalled Istomin, "was Willy's big break." He made his major debut in New York playing the work before the Boston recording was made.
It isn't all that fine a concerto. But it is big and flashy, and an almost ideal vehicle for a young virtuoso of that time to make his first splash. Also, the concerto generated much publicity because it was produced near the end of World War II, when the latest Soviet works were very much in vogue here. In fact, the concerto was so popular that "it became," said Istomin, "sort of a yoke around Willy's neck, nailing him with a reputation for that steely sound that it requires."
The performance on the other side of the record is the truly marvelous one, a 1949 version of Prokofiev's famed third Piano Concerto with Antal Dorati and the Dallas Symphony. It is the finest performance of this beautiful work that I have ever heard. Commented Istomin, "I doubt that we'll ever hear a better one than that."
The concerto's glowing lyricism is wonderfully spun, with that beautiful sound and that remarkable "musical temperament," as his wife called it. But what remains uppermost in one's memory is another quality she described: "It is a rhythmic pulse that, of the other pianists I have heard, only Horowitz has. It is something that happened anywhere he walked on stage."
Unlike the recordings of another great pianist from that period who died young, Dinu Lipatti, Kapell's recordings fell out of wide circulation. But in this age of digital processing and compact discs, RCA is bringing them back. The Khachaturian/Prokofiev disc is the first of a series.
The next is expected to be all-Chopin: mazurkas and both the B-minor and B-flat sonatas. The latter is a real find; Kapell never made a commercial recording of it. But Kapell's wife said that somebody came up with a "quite listenable" version of the B-flat done in Australia only seven days before the pianist's death (irony of ironies, he played the work's celebrated "Funeral March" slow movement at his last recital).
"I just thank my lucky stars we found that," she said. "Someone got it off the air."
She said there is enough material at RCA for about seven and a half discs, including a Bach D-major Partita in which he had done everything but the gigue.
One performance expected to come soon is a version of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" with Fritz Reiner that easily rivals the composer's own recording.
These discs, of course, represent only the beginning of what might have been. At the time of Kapell's death there were chamber music recordings in the works with Heifetz and Piatigorsky. "I understand," recalled Kapell's wife, "that Heifetz remarked that he would 'never forgive' Willy for dying."
Apart from the competition at Maryland, there will be an exhibition of Kapell memorabilia given to the university by the family at the International Piano Archives there. It will be on display through Oct. 31.
Anna Lou Kapell Dehavenon, Eugene Istomin and others also see all this as a sort of a celebration of William Kapell.
"Perhaps this will help us get over the sense of loss," she said. "It was something we never really got over. That shock and that sense of loss. Willy's peers were so young and we had never really lost someone like that before."