The Lyrical Poet of the Piano
Not even a paper cut that nearly wrecked his career as a concert pianist could keep virtuouso Murray Perahia away from music. Now fully recovered after several operations, critics say his work is better than ever.
When you really need help, you go to the best. That's what concert pianist Murray Perahia did when a thumb injury left him unable to play: Frustrated and depressed, he consoled himself with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. When, after several years, he was finally able to return to the piano, Perahia shared his newfound insights into Bach's music in a series of acclaimed recordings.
Born on April 19, 1947, in New York, Perahia showed musical talent from a very early age. His father, a tailor whose own father had discouraged him from becoming a musician, took his young son along to Metropolitan Opera performances on Saturday nights.
"The next day I would sing the arias I heard at the opera," Perahia told one interviewer. "That's what started it. Next thing I knew, we had a piano and I was taking lessons." He began taking lessons at the age of four, but says his parents never pushed him to play: "It was always my idea."
Perahia, who grew up in the Bronx, studied with the same teacher from the age of six until he was 17. In the early years, his teacher, Jeannette Haien, did not emphasize technique, but worked on ear training, dictation, theory and analysis with her young pupil. Although Perahia was considered a child prodigy, Haien sheltered him from the pressures of performing. "I didn't give a real concert until I was 17," Perahia said in a 2001 interview.
Like most kids studying piano, Perahia wasn't crazy about practicing, although he did love to improvise and arrange tunes he had heard at the opera or the Spanish music his father loved. He didn't begin practicing seriously until he was about 15, when he first went to music camp at Blue Hill, Maine. Soon after, he was on his way to success: In 1964, at the age of 17, he began studying composition and conducting at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan; a year later he won the Kosciusko Chopin Competition for young concert artists, and in 1966 he made his Carnegie Hall debut. The following year, he was invited to Marlboro, Vermont, home of the renowned and eponymously named music festival, where he studied and performed with high-caliber musicians such as the pianist Rudolf Serkin and cellist Pablo Casals.
Taken under the arm of a legend
Perahia also met the celebrated pianist Vladimir Horowitz around this time, but was "too frightened" to study with him. But Horowitz "kept an eye" on the younger musician, and the two became close during the last years of Horowitz's life. In fact, Perahia, who was at Horowitz's apartment the night before he died in November 1989, was the last person to hear him play. That night, Horowitz performed Franz Liszt's arrangement of the Bach chorale "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen."
Perahia graduated from Mannes College in 1969 and worked as Serkin's assistant at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for a year. After some convincing from his agent, Frank Solomon, Perahia agreed to enter the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972 -- and gained international recognition as the first American pianist to win it. A recording contract and performances with major European orchestras followed, along with the start of his long association with the Aldeburgh Festival in Britain. There he worked closely with the festival's founders, the composer Benjamin Britten and his longtime companion, tenor Peter Pears, and served as co-artistic director of the festival between 1981 and 1989.