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Joseph Kalichstein, renowned concert pianist, dies at 76

Pianist Joseph Kalichstein performing with the Juilliard Orchestra in New York in 2006. (Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

Joseph Kalichstein, an Israeli-American pianist who was equally distinguished as a recitalist, a soloist with orchestra and a chamber musician, died March 31 in Manhattan. He was 76.

The Juilliard School, where Mr. Kalichstein taught for many years, announced his death. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Over a career that spanned half a century, Mr. Kalichstein presented thoughtful, impassioned and deeply musical performances of the piano repertoire from Bach, Mozart and Brahms through the masters of the early 20th century, including Bartok, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

With his chamber ensemble, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, he went further still and played contemporary works by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Richard Danielpour and Daron Hagen, among others. Several of these pieces were written for the group. Since 1997, Mr. Kalichstein had been artistic adviser for chamber music to the Kennedy Center and artistic director of the center’s Fortas Chamber Music Concerts.

During his long history with the Kennedy Center, Mr. Kalichstein appeared with his trio, gave solo recitals and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as in many other concerts. He had also been a teacher at the Juilliard School since 1983.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin, who knew Mr. Kalichstein from their student days, called him “a musician’s musician, always thoughtful and imaginative.”

“All of us who were at Juilliard with him knew that he would become an important force in the music world,” he continued. “When you coupled those skills with his incredible humanity and sense of humor, the very definition of the word ‘mensch’ leaps to the mind.”

Mr. Kalichstein was part of a golden time at Juilliard, studying alongside a remarkable crop of young students who would go on to international fame, including the violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, pianists Emanuel Ax and Misha Dichter, and the conductor James Levine, as well as Slatkin.

The venerated Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau had heard Mr. Kalichstein in Tel Aviv and arranged for the teenager to study with Edward Steuermann at Juilliard in 1962. “I was ready to take on the world,” Mr. Kalichstein recalled in 1989.

In the late 1960s, two things occurred to bring him to attention of the listening public and the highest echelons of the music world. In 1968, conductor Leonard Bernstein invited Mr. Kalichstein to perform on the CBS telecast of his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, where he played the last two movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 under the direction of Paul Capolongo.

The following year, Mr. Kalichstein won the Levintritt Competition, then the most prestigious such award in the United States and so exclusive that if the judges found nobody worthy of the prize, they did not give one. The jury, which included pianist Rudolf Serkin and conductor George Szell, selected Mr. Kalichstein in a unanimous decision.

Reviewing a performance by Mr. Kalichstein shortly thereafter in the New York Times, critic Raymond Ericson called his reading of Schubert’s ethereal Sonata in A “profound, not in a heavy way but in its complete identification with the spirit of the music. It seemed second nature to the pianist to sustain long passages on a quiet level, with delicate gradations of tone to make them constantly interesting.”

Joseph Kalichstein was born in Tel Aviv, then part of British mandate of Palestine, on Jan. 15, 1946, and began his studies with a neighbor by the time he was 4.

“I would crawl to the neighbor’s house, my parents told me, because they had a piano,” he recalled in an interview with the Bergen County Record in 2001. “I could read music before I could read letters.”

Yet he never thought of himself as a child prodigy. “I was pretty lazy,” he said. “I didn’t work at it eight hours a day. I wasn’t a wunderkind.”

Looking back, he thought this might have been a good thing. “Some people have a great talent at a young age and they get burnt out,” he told the Record. “It’s a horrible tragedy and I escaped it.”

Although Mr. Kalichstein was held in high esteem among his peers, he was remarkably self-effacing, indifferent to publicity, gave interviews sparingly and seemed most devoted to collaborative performances. “Playing with different people is about give and take,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1989. “It’s about coming together to make something bigger than yourself.”

In that spirit, he joined with two friends, violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson, well-known artists in their own right, to form a trio in 1976.

“In the bad old days,” he told the Times-Dispatch, “a chamber player was considered one who could no longer play the solo repertoire. I am trying to shatter that myth. After all, the superstars of the past — [violinist] Jascha Heifetz, [pianist] Arthur Rubinstein, [cellist] Gregor Piatigorsky and [pianist] Artur Schnabel — played chamber music. People forget this and try to put us in boxes.”

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio made its professional debut at the Inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Although Mr. Kalichstein used to joke that “it was all downhill from there,” the group ranked with the Emerson String Quartet (founded the same year) among the most important American chamber groups of its time and played throughout the country and the world.

Mr. Kalichstein believed that there were many similarities between playing concertos with orchestras and chamber music with small ensembles. “The only difference is that in playing with the trio, we know each other well. We can discuss and grow on past experiences.”

He considered solo recitals a different matter: “There, I must be the gladiator with the beast.”

Survivors include his wife, the former Rowain Schultz; two sons, Avi Kalichstein and Rafi Kalichstein; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Kalichstein gave his final performance in Phoenix on March 17, when the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio played music by Schumann, Zwilich and Brahms.