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RICHTER IN BERKELEY

Preface: There are many pitfalls to recalling an event that occurred nearly 38 years ago. As I have no desire to add to the anecdotal lore that surrounds so many descriptions of Sviatoslav Richter as a performing artist, this little historical footnote is drafted with considerable misgivings. I offer up Amea culpa@ for whatever factual errors that occur in this narrative. Nonetheless, I find it useful to recall the days that Richter undertook his daunting three month tour of the United States.

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In 1960 the University of California enjoyed its exemplary position as one of the largest and also academically one of the best university systems in the world. The Berkeley student body of 25,000 was fairly evenly divided between undergraduates and graduate students. The atmosphere was cosmopolitan, intellectually challenging, and highly energized. In addition to the usual graduate student life of study and teaching, one could find relief in a variety of extracurricular activities. The Committee for Arts & Lectures at Berkeley (through state money and generous benefactors) provided a bounty of inexpensive concerts for the students and faculty. As an added element, the Committee often arranged for the performer to meet with students in a reception following the concert. On more than one occasion I had heard the artist comment with deep pleasure on the knowledge and appreciation the Berkeley audiences brought to a concert. Getting tickets for these events could be as difficult as the clamor for football and basketball ducats.

As the decade of the 1950=s came to an end, the United States and the USSR entered into a momentary thaw in the Cold War with a very selective cultural exchange. In 1958 the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to Leningrad and performed with Richter as a soloist. It was not surprising, then, that an increasing demand and a rising anticipation grew for his appearance in the U.S. In the spring of 1960 we first began to get printed news about Sviatoslav Richter=s appearances in Western Europe. This news was followed, in time, by announcements of the proposed set of concerts in New York.

No one foresaw the impact of those Carnegie Hall performances. In the weeks that followed the concerts there were newspaper, magazine, TV, and radio stories on the opening days of his concert tour. Superlatives and praise abounded for the strength of his Prokofiev, the delicacy of his Debussy, the poetry of his Schumann, and the revelatory playing of Beethoven. The frenzy of news reports made Richter a CELEBRITYY a PERSONALITYYa STAR!! Richter generally refused interviews, eschewed autographs, and remained linguistically unapproachable (he spoke only Russian or German). Nonetheless, news accounts related tales of his being temperamental and unpredictable! Ironically, for most Americans, Richter=s fame preceded any real or practical knowledge of his skills at the piano. Virtually none of his records was available in ordinary record stores and no national broadcasts were made of any of his concerts.

Only after the Carnegie Hall concerts in October of 1960 did we learn that Richter was embarking on a 10 week 30 recital tour and that he would perform at Cal. When Committee for Arts & Lectures announced the concert, they had not worked out the actual logistics (even the site was undecided) nor the program for the concert. The arrangements with Richter=s manager, Sol Hurok set a concert fee of $8000 (the largest the university had ever paid an artist). As I recall, I was both excited and disappointed as the day of the concert neared. The site was the basketball gymnasium B for the simple reason that it was the largest indoor facility on the campus. But it was a long way from being a good acoustic setting for a piano. The program (only generally announced) stated Haydn, Schumann, Scriabin, Debussy, & Ravel did not appear to be up to the stature of the New York programs.

The University undertook extended and unusual support to make this event go smoothly. As I remember the highly polished floor of the basketball court had been covered (most likely at the demand of the basketball coach!). A temporary stage was constructed and enormous sheets of fabric hung to soften the potential for echoing acoustics.

Shortly before Richter arrived in the Bay Area, his advance man was informed that the Steinway facilities in San Francisco would stay open late for him to audition all of their available grands. With alarm he interjected , ANo! No!! Don=t do that! He hates having to make a choice; he=s sure it will be the wrong one. He considers each piano a challenge. Just bring the one you like best.@ So Steinway made a selection and the instrument was shipped to the Cal gymnasium and a piano tuner was engaged.

The day of the concert (a Sunday afternoon, I believe) was a bright winter day, balmy by even California standards. The gym was crowded, with an audience at once happy in anticipation and uncertain about this Titan. After all these years, my memories are more of the physical elements of his playing, of the shifts and shadings of sounds, and of the emotional impact he had, than of the exact pieces he performed.

The opening piece was Haydn Sonata #20? 22?. Richter walked to the piano, started to sit and suddenly hesitated. He stood briefly and then began to dismantle the music rack and placed it on the floor. Then, after the briefest of adjustments to the piano seat began playing the slow measured opening phrases of the sonata. But he was clearly disturbed by something and his head pivoted from side to side examining the keyboard. Suddenly, to universal dismay, he stopped playing.

At this juncture the woman who had arranged for the Steinway selection nearly had a heart attack, thinking Richter was going to refuse to play at all. Richter began pulling off the fingerboard, wiggled it upwards and set it on the floor. After a few nervous laughs the audience resettled, Richter regained his concentration and the concert began. [fn#1]

I would say that this program appears to have been fairly typical for Richter. Even for a musically knowledgeable audience, it had a number of unfamiliar pieces. During the first part of the concert the music unfolded logically and serenely. The Haydn gave way to Schumann - the two or three op. 21 Novelettes. By intermission the feeling was one of contained, enormous pleasure at riveting playing.

The opening of the second part of the program was utterly stunning. As the audience waited in surprising quiet, Richter entered from behind the curtain, rushed across the stage and even before he was sitting his hands crashed on the opening notes [fn#2] of Scriabin=s Sonata #5. The audience gasps were loud and effectively pulled the audience into the energy of the piece. Next, was Debussy. I am less certain here, but think it was Estampes III (Jardins sous la pluie) and L=isle joyeuse. Then, Ravel: Miroir #1 (Noctuelles), Miroir #5 (La vallee des cloches), and Jeux d=eau. This final piece was played with unbelievable lightness. Richter=s fingers seemed suspended above the keys impossibly drawing them upwards to be ever so delicately touched. Not unexpectedly, the audience exploded in applause. After the briefest of rests, Richter played a series of Chopin pieces as encores.

The post concert events were also typically Richter. No formal reception . He came out from an improvised dressing area but without his interpreter, so that there was virtually no meaningful conversation. He appeared to be shy and understandably drained. So extensive pantomimes of appreciations occurred. Anticlimax to an afternoon that changed forever how I listened to the piano.

Footnotes:     #1. And...the Steinway fingerboard had been carried off as a souvenier!

#2. Richter appeared at the University of Michigan and played the Grieg Piano Concerto. A colleague tells me that Richter charged across the stage and simultaneously sat and crashed the opening chords of the concerto!

Bill Cunliffe

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