Fame eludes pianists in U.S.

Music: Few classical artists gain name recognition in the United States, though many quickly gain popularity in Europe and elsewhere.

July 20, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The unfamiliarity of some of the names in Philips Classics' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series -- to Americans, at least -- says many things, not all of them flattering, about the depth of musical appreciation in this country.

I am not talking here about pianists such as Russians Maria Yudina and Grigori Ginsburg, whose obscurity in the United States was a consequence of their lack of exposure outside their own country.

I am talking about pianists who had achieved fame in Western Europe and -- for a while, at least -- in the United States. I am thinking about Frenchman Samson Francois (1924-1970), Hungarians Geza Anda (1921-1976) and Gyorgy Cziffra (1924-1994), Bulgarian Alexis Weissenberg (born 1928), Austrian Friedrich Guilda (born 1930) and Americans Julius Katchen (1928-1964) and Stephen Kovacevich (born 1940).

These seven names are almost instantly recognizable to most European music lovers. They are all but forgotten in the United States, even though two of them were born here and a third, Weissenberg, came here in 1946 as a 17-year-old, was educated here and even became a U.S. citizen.

Americans tend to like universally recognized superstars, whether Paderewski 100 years ago or Pavarotti today. Our failure to appreciate less celebrated musicians comes in part from national peculiarities, geographical as well as musical.

We live in a huge country. While modern media make us experience certain events, almost instantly, those with smaller profiles escape such attention.

In 1961, 21-year-old Kovacevich -- a Californian who had been studying with Dame Myra Hess in England for two years and who was then known as Stephen Bishop -- made a warmly received London debut in Wigmore Hall, performing Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations." Within a few days, almost every music lover in Great Britain knew his name. Six years later, Kovacevich's critically acclaimed New York debut left him obscure in Chicago, almost 1,000 miles away.

It is a well-known fact in the classical music business that it's harder to achieve success in the United States than in any other country. This has nothing to do with high standards of aesthetic appreciation.

Americans are not only distinguished by the long distances that separate them, but also by their short attention spans. American audiences do not enjoy a high reputation among foreign-born -- or, for that matter, among native-born -- musicians.

All seven of our pianists did have periods when they enjoyed success here. But if they did not play in this country season after season, with their appearances bolstered by powerful infusions of hype, their careers dried up.

European audiences tend to be more patient and open-minded than those in America. They were willing, for example, to put up with the momentary impediments in Francois' improvisatory performances -- bars played out of time, extra beats added to bars and inexplicable changes in the composer's markings -- for those moments when he could make Ravel or Chopin genuinely electrifying.

Americans like to hear what is familiar; they like to hear musicians who are famous; and they need regular reminders that certain musicians are famous.

Japan rivals the United States as the most profitable market for classical performers. That's a good thing. Because if the future of classical concerts depended solely upon us, I'd be worried.

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