March 02, 2007

Prodigies and Cousins

Have you been keeping up with the scandal in the classical music world concerning Joyce Hatto, the elderly pianist whose widower released CDs under her name that contained clips plagiarized from other pianists'recordings? The recordings won Hatto widespread praise; a critic called her “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.”. It's become a juicy gossip topic in that little world, and you can read about it here and here.

I'm not interested in Joyce Hatto, but one of the letters to today's NYT about the scandal contrasts the fraudulent Hatto with a genuine "prodigy of old age" still living and performing: Ruth Slenczynska (pronounced Slen-CHIN-ska), who is my late father's first cousin. Here is what the letter says about her:

[T]here is a legendary living pianist, Ruth Slenczynska, who was a world-famous child prodigy but is now in her 80s and still teaching, performing and recording with her own age-defying hands. Madame Slenczynska is a neighbor of mine, and I have the pleasure of hearing her practice daily.

She is a true “prodigy of old age” — not unlike her teacher and mentor, Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Les Dreyer
New York, Feb. 26, 2007
The writer is a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

I've heard about this cousin all my life but alas, have never met her. What I've heard is that she was a genuinely top-tier child prodigy in the 1920s and 1930s, touring major European cities, playing with major orchestras, actually being called -- this will kill you -- "the greatest piano genius since Mozart" by critic Olin Downes. Then, in justified rebellion against her tyrannical father, she stopped performing at age 15. Later she returned to performing and was for many years a member of the music faculty at Southern Illinois University. Now she's retired in New York.

I've got a couple of her wonderful CDs, including this one of Schumann.

In 1957 she published a book about her life as a child prodigy, Forbidden Childhood. It's very hard to find now -- I've found copies listed in used bookstores in the UK and Australia for well over $100 -- and oddly enough, one of the jacket designers is listed as "Andy Warol." I think I know who that is, with an "h" added -- the late 50s were the era when he was making a living in commercial art.

Here's a catalogue showing libraries where the book can be found.

Trying to achieve a successful concert career as a pianist is one of the slimmest bets there is. In another branch of my family -- well, among my soon-to-be-ex-in-laws -- I have a cousin by marriage named Mark Salman who is as technically accomplished and stylistically interesting as the big-name pianists who make millions from concerts and CDs. Why does one career become global and another remain regional? Many theories can be broached, but if you love classical music, you'll be doing yourself a favor by buying any of these CDs, on which you can variously find Beethoven, Schumann, an obscure but brilliant 19th century composer named Alkan with a tragicomic life story, and contemporary piano-cello duets.

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