PIANIST MISHA DICHTER – A Conversation

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Acclaimed pianist Misha Dichter returns to the Bay Area for a recital presented by Stanford Lively Arts in Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on Wednesday, February 17th, at 8:00 p.m.  His Stanford performance follows his recovery from Dupuytren’s contracture, an inherited condition that affected his right hand and threatened to end his career. Mr. Dichter, known as an interpreter of works of the Russian Romantic School and the German Classical style, will play a program of compositions by Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartók, and Liszt. At the age of 20, while still enrolled at Juilliard, he entered the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where his choice of repertoire – music of Schubert and Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky – reflected the two major influences on his musical development.  Mr. Dichter’s stunning triumph at that competition launched his international career.  Almost immediately thereafter, he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at Tanglewood with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, a concert that was nationally broadcast live on NBC and subsequently recorded for RCA. I saw that broadcast. I remember it because it was announced that the Tchaikovsky concerto would be played. I was obsessing on it at the time and was aware of the publicity surrounding then 23 year old Misha Dichter.

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MISHA DICHTER. Photo, Stefan Cohen

Seán: Tell me about the Stanford concert and the pieces that have been scheduled so far. What are you looking forward to? What kinds of challenges are in the material?

Misha: It’s a very broad ranging program. What fascinates me – especially in the second half – is Liszt’s Funeral Gondola, No. 2. It’s from his last years, during which period he really had left tonality far behind. I find it actually refreshing to juxtapose a Liszt group with the Bartók Hungarian Songs that precede it. Liszt’s remark to his colleagues was that he was trying to throw a stone as far as he could into the next Century. He certainly did with this piece.

Seán: In the first half, which includes Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert – I’m curious how these works sit in your hands these days.

Misha: These days I have the luxury of playing the pieces I love most. As the years go by, I find that the Bagatelles are really not that accessible – as far as Beethoven goes – to most music lovers. When my wife is in the audience, she says, “You know I love them, but they’re not easy for people.” And I say, “I know. That’s why I’m doing it.” Because it fascinates me. He went from the Ninth Symphony, Opus 125 to the six Bagatelles, Opus 126 – which he said were his best. What fascinates me is that he turns to such miniatures after something so massive as the Ninth Symphony. Then I have something that I just love to go back to often. I have the photocopies of his notebook and manuscript of these six Bagatelles. And far more interesting than the notes we have left to us from him are the crossed-off measures where – even at that point in his life – he’s about to take a less good direction. We’re familiar with the cliché that Mozart almost seemed to be taking dictation with no errors in sight and here was Beethoven still wrestling with these problems.

Seán: It’s incredible to hear things like that. Is there something in the work that excites you – such as actors in a play who have a moment they can’t wait to get to? Is there something in the playing of it that you really look forward to?

Misha: What always brings a smile to my face is that I am aware of where the piece could have gone. So, I almost hear in my inner ear – while I’m playing it – the wrong way and where it might have turned out. It’s almost like a joke that doesn’t fulfill itself and takes a different turn.

Seán: Is there something you bring out which might clarify that for you and for the audience and perhaps to other pianists?

Misha: I don’t think one would be aware that’s what’s going on in my mind, but your word “clarify” underlies just about everything I do in practicing and performing. I just want everything to be laid out as clearly as possible for the listener – with all my years of study and re-study and re-discovery and rejecting what I thought was the most important element of a piece or a measure, even twenty years ago. And then coming back and knowing some elements of that were good. There are so many layers now of understanding. I hope at least some of that comes through and, because of all the practice that goes into it, that the clarity remains paramount.

Seán: I remember the broadcast from 1966.

Misha: Wow! That takes us back.

Seán: I was a teenager, it just so happened I was obsessing over that particular piece. I’m sure that’s why I watched the show and then became familiar with you. Usually it’s the other way around for me. First I’m celebrity-oriented and then become familiar with the works and the composers they play.

Misha: That’s a good way to do it.

Seán: Then I become very curious about the challenges they deal with along the way. Certainly, the recent adventure you have had with your hands is tremendous. Besides what your doctor ordered – what did you do, what do you do – to keep your spirits up?

Misha: There was nothing clear-cut about the whole process. As I look back on certain things that were starting to bother me, between 2000–2002 – I think it’s all related to what eventually hit the wall when the fifth finger of the right hand really pretty much curled out of action in 2007. So, little incremental set-backs leading up to that were not very clear to me. When they were happening very early on, I thought – well, that was not very difficult before. Then I would practice around it and it would be kind-of OK. But the Tchaikovsky you heard me play in 1966 was not the piece I could play in 2007 because of this disease. Then I went to this fantastic surgeon – Scott Wolf, in New York – who basically said, “Let’s lick this sucker!” He opened it up, took out the mess, and closed it up – then the therapist had the lion’s share. Scott would say, “I mildly intervened in this. It was the therapist who really got you through it.” From the third of removing all the ugly stuff left from surgery to advising how to proceed with my new hand – my new old hand – she made sure there were no setbacks. I told her I had committed to a benefit concert in St. Louis seven weeks from then. She had this angelic smile – which can mean anything you want it to mean in retrospect. Long after she said, “I didn’t think you were going to make it, but I did encourage you.” And I did play that concert seven weeks later with my restored hand.

Seán: Was there an understanding on the part of the therapist and the doctor? Meaning, here’s what can happen to anybody under these circumstances, but here are the personal needs of this pianist.

Misha: That’s the genius of Scott, the surgeon. He found me a therapist who had been a pianist at Juilliard. So, she knew the insides. It was more than just “flex your fingers five minutes a day” and all these other motions necessary to the healing process. But she also advised my on how much I could start practicing and, quite specifically, what repertoire. It made all the difference. What was really grueling – and I see this all afterwards as a part of an experience in which I could rejoice – I took the time to learn the Brahms left-hand setting of the Bach Violin Chaconne. I strengthened my left hand which, up to that time, had been pretty strong anyway. I took advantage of it and learned this impossible transcription. Every pianist I talked to said, “That’s a monster all right!” From Day One I had a touch with music that I didn’t want to lose. So, in the first couple of days, I’m looking down at a bandaged right hand and I’m learning the Bach Chaconne with the left.

Seán: That certainly answers the question about personal therapy.

Misha: Then, of course, dreams and nightmares are something completely aside from that. The surgery was scheduled for March 15th of 2007. I was scheduled to play the ever-present Tchaikovsky Concerto in July with Chicago Symphony. That loomed in the back of my mind as something I wanted very much to do. I would have – night after night after night, those first days and even weeks – the variants of the final exam on the course you never took. The Chicago is tuning up – I have to go out and play Tchaikovsky – I look down and don’t really have a right hand.

Seán: What’s going on in your real head at that point?

Misha: I would wake up and think, “It hasn’t sunken-in to my subconscious yet that it’s going to be OK, that the surgery was a success.” Little by little, with practice coming back – five minutes a day, my allotment the first week, which made me completely crazy – then a half hour to 40 minutes of my usual six to eight hours. By the sixth or seventh week after surgery, I was the happiest camper you can imagine.

Seán: During the initial healing phase, what would you do with the time usually devoted to practicing?

Misha: Ever longer walks, reading books on the hand, This Is Your Brain on Music, all kinds of insights that I never had time to research about how we work. People mention the case and all the turmoil that Leon Fleisher has been through and that of Gary Graffman. In that respect, I must say I have been very lucky because this has nothing to do with anything neurological or any self-inflicted muscular setback. This was simply a disease. it was almost like removing some excess new skin.

Seán: What’s coming up after the Stanford concert?

Misha: Three days later the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations in Sacramento. It’s my first Rach/Pag since my new hands. Then two-piano concerts with my wife of music by Rachmaninoff – which are my first concerts of those pieces with my new hands. So, it’s a nice time.

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Seán: I’ve been listening over and over to the three CD set with your wife, Cipa – The Complete Piano Works for Four Hands. I must be spellbound.

Misha: Aren’t they amazing?

Seán: They truly are. So, I’m curious about the communication that happens between you and your wife. During the learning process, was there ever a moment when you got on each other’s nerves? Something about the phrasing, perhaps? There must be a favorite anecdote in there.

Misha: Every minute of the process! What came out was really a miracle. It was intense on an individual level, it was more intense as we got together to work it out. The details of working something so synchronized to that extent are a thousand-fold to what a solo pianist has to do. Any little bit of liberty, obviously, has to be either sensed by the other or decided upon between the two. Right up to the last second, there were some movements we really thought weren’t going to click. Until we were finally in the studio did we think it would be OK. But there was always an air of uncertainty because it’s a monumentally difficult thing. To the casual listener it’s, “Oh, charming! Mozart. Lovely. Anything else that’s interesting today?” And for us, it’s three hours of painstakingly rigorous and ultimately transcendentally beautiful music that has to seem effortless.

Seán: I think it a rare thing that someone finds a partner in music – in addition to their private life – whom they can communicate with for such long periods of time.

Misha: Well, we’re lucky that way. We just celebrated our 42nd Anniversary and our 45th year together. The communication is so ridiculous. At one point, I remember sitting next to Cipa at a concert somebody was playing at Carnegie. I had a thought about not liking the way a certain phrase went. I didn’t move, I wasn’t twitching or holding her had to make anything obvious. Then she whispered to me, “Stop it.”

Seán: That’s it! That’s what I’m looking for. Are there any recording projects in the wind?

Misha: Nothing that has been settled.

Seán: Is there something you want to record?

Misha: I think a natural after the Mozart recording is some 4-hand Schubert and 4-hand Dvořák. Then evermore solo work. Yes, we knock on wood that we have our health. So, there’s more things to hope for.

Seán: When are we going to have all this in print? When are you going to write your story?

Misha: My kids are already on my case about that. The younger one – who studied piano all through Harvard and really understands music and piano playing very well – understands what I’ve discovered that they don’t even teach at Juilliard. He says, “Dad, you’ve to write this down! Dad?!” So, any day now.

Seán: Along the line of young pianists careers these days – what do you notice that’s different about what they are facing in the pursuit of a realistic career compared to the adventures you went through as a young man?

Misha: Probably a whole different world. Th number that jumps out of me – from a 2-part article on classical music in China in the New York Times a couple of summers ago – was at least one and maybe several million pianists now in Conservatory in China. Where do you go from there? How do you distinguish yourself? And no wanting to face the impossible question of how many people out of millions and millions can have a career of any sort? I don’t know the answer.

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SERGEI RACHMANINOFF. 1873—1943

Misha: The trend that worries me – and I see this because I just gave a Master Class in Boston. I always give one in Aspen and often at Juilliard and at other conservatories. I think that my generation was, shall we say, a little more disciplined. I see a bit of self-indulgence which may be a result of the crowded field where he or she feels they have to distinguish themselves from the pack. Maybe there’s more of the histrionic visual. I was taught that a pianist is to be heard and not seen, practically. I was taught that the ideal was Rachmaninoff who came out looking like a convict – with short-cropped hair, with no motion at all. Or look at Horowitz – same thing. The ideal being – don’t get in the way of the music. The eyes can actually detract from the sound. If I’ve been criticized for anything over the years, it’s been about not being visually exciting. And I think, “Fantastic! That’s exactly my goal.”

Seán: Is there a pianist on the horizon you are watching these days?

Misha: There are so many brilliantly talented kids. Every time I come from a class, I think, “Wow! Music is in good shape.” These kids are hard workers, they’re talented, and they’re everywhere. I couldn’t single out one. But the talent is really out there.

Seán: So, what’s happening between now and the Stanford concert? What is your day about?

Misha: The practice day can be unexpected. It can be as clear cut as – “Next week I’m playing this recital in this place. Let’s go over it.” And then I think of a passage from a piece I haven’t played in 20 years that intrigues me and perhaps is interesting to me. I’ll spend half my day on it. On a whim. Because it interests me. That’s what my days have been for a long time. The concert happens along. And I’m always prepared for it. If it’s good and I’m feeling good about it – in the best cast scenario everything clicks and everybody’s happy. So, I try to be in a very positive emotional state. Whenever I walk out on stage, I know the preparation is there. But the concert is almost incidental to my on-going life of pursuing piano playing, pursuing music, and being thrilled by it everyday.

Seán: Art for its own sake.

Misha: I have always believed that.

Click here to order tickets on-line: MISHA DICHTER.
Post-Performance Discussion: Pianist Misha Dichter with Professor Amy Ladd (Stanford University Medical School), Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

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MISHA and CIPA DICHTER. Photo, Stefan Cohen

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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