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Gary Graffman describes his first steps into the world of professional music

“This photo proves that I was not entirely oblivious of the conductor.” Graffman’s debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1947.  (credit: Adrian Siegel)In his 1981 memoir, I Really Should Be Practicing: Reflections on the Pleasures and Perils of Playing the Piano in Public, Gary Graffman describes his first steps into the world of professional music. Only 18 years old and recently graduated from Curtis, he won the regional division of the first Rachmaninoff Piano Competition, held in 1946.* The prize was a performance with the local orchestra.

Before committing himself to the concert, Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, felt it best to hear Graffman play. According to Graffman’s account, Ormandy also may have intended to have a bit of fun at his expense.
Graffman arrived at the Academy of Music for his preview. There was one piano on the stage. Ormandy and his assistant conductor, Alexander Hilsberg sat in the hall, his only audience. “Do you want to hear solo repertoire?” Graffman asked, mentally noting there was no accompanist.  “No, I’d rather hear a concerto,” Ormandy replied.  Of the list of works Graffman had memorized, Ormandy chose Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Graffman played through some of the busier sections. After listening a while, Ormandy stopped him: “And now please, the cadenza.”
(At this point it is relevant to point out that the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto has no cadenza—a detail Ormandy would have known all too well.)

Puzzled, Graffman played some additional solo passages. Ormandy stopped him, “Very nice, now play me the cadenza.”  Nervous, not wanting to question the conductor, the young pianist played even more solo sections.  Eventually he heard muttering between the two conductors—Graffman assumed this might have been Hilsberg telling Ormandy to end his little game—and soon the men stopped Graffman and asked him to move on to another piece. He has never been certain if the conductors were playing a joke on him or trying to teach him a lesson of some sort. Nevertheless, he was approved to perform Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto in a few months’ time.

And yet, Ormandy’s “lesson” was not quite finished.  Rehearsal with the orchestra laid bare all the things Graffman had yet to learn. He immediately regretted his lack of chamber music experience. As he later explained in his memoir, “I had no concept of the give-and-take essential in chamber music which should exist as well with an orchestra, even when playing the so-called virtuoso repertoire...To make matters worse, I knew nothing about the protocol of deportment at rehearsals, as this subject was not taught along with octaves and double thirds.”

Gary made a few blunders in rehearsal etiquette that he soon regretted. For example, at one point in the slow movement he interrupted to ask Ormandy if he wouldn’t mind allowing him to trill a bit longer before bringing in the orchestra. “I will keep it in mind,” was Ormandy’s only reply.  At the performance, Ormandy left Graffman to trill until his hand "felt as if it was about to fall off."  Gary explains this was Ormandy’s way of having the last word, “I looked up at him, expecting him to be ready to bring the orchestra in. But he was gazing raptly off into the distance somewhere over my head...Ormandy then, smilingly, brought the orchestra in to my rescue.”

*Gary was the only regional winner chosen in 1946.  Thus, no final round was held and no national winner proclaimed.

Barbara Benedett / digital archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.