[From the 3/29/05 edition of http://www.sfcv.org/]
At age 92, the Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor is a formidable presence,
strong, clear-headed, with a wicked twinkle in his eyes. He doesn't
particularly like opera, he said when encountered at the Legion of Honor
Friday evening: "the music comes to a halt too often." And yet, the
exchange took place before a San Francisco Lyric Opera performance
of Verdi's "Un Ballo di Maschera." Will he sit through all four acts?
Yes, Sandor retorted vigorously, and he will do it again the next day!
How come? "Ballo," he explained, was the reason for his visit from his
Manhattan home because he is part of the Palmer family - Simon Palmer
being the Lyric's manager, and the son, Barnaby Palmer, music director
and conductor. "I will attend any number of performances when my
grandnephew conducts; he is so talented!"
How does he keep busy these days? Working on a book, about Bela Bartok,
his teacher and mentor some six decades ago. What can he say about the
composer that hasn't been covered? He has a unique perspective, Sandor
says, being Bartok's only piano student who went on to a professional
career. The only one? Listeners to the conversation are searching their
memory and suggest names. No, Sandor insists, he was the only one because
Bartok didn't take piano students, and besides, at the Music Academy in
Budapest, students tended to gravitate to Erno Dohnanyi, the other
eminence on the faculty.
Music reaching us from the opera cast warming up backstage prompts Sandor
to correct an old and widely accepted saw about the savage "laugh" in
Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. No, he says, it was not making fun of
Shostakovich (a variation on the legend says Bartok was bitter about an
award or commission going to the Russian composer instead of him), but
rather both composers were mocking a Nazi military march. Now, the theme
for both, says Sandor, humming to illustrate his point, came from a
folksong used by Lehar in "The Merry Widow"... and so it goes, facts
and memories tumbling out at high speed.
A major purpose of Sandor's writing project is to counter the intimation
or outright claim of Bartok atonality or bitonality. Sandor is particularly
critical of Halsey Stevens' "The Life and Music of Bela Bartok," and its
references to "Schoenberg atonality that had touched Bartok throughout
his creative years."
Dissonance, yes, Sandor allows, but then he sings and whistles examples
of music, naming the keys Bartok used, proving that there was no diversion
from the diatonic system. Then, suddenly, there is a flashback to a
review in Oakland of his Today's Artists recital 30 years ago when the
writer took issue with Sandor's progam note about the key in a Chopin
piece. Just as clearly as he recalls his first lesson with Bartok, Sandor
explains the fine points of the key nomenclature (which are different
in English and Hungarian) at issue three decades ago, asking to be put
in touch with the critic so that the dispute may be resolved. And then
he settles down to the opera, the first of two performances.
Born in 1912 in Budapest, Sandor made his debut in 1930, the year he
started studying with Bartok. After his successful debut at Carnegie
Hall, he settled in the US. (Sandor became a US citizen by enlisting
in the Army, and serving in the Signal Corps, Intelligence Service, and
Special Services between 1942 and 1944.) On Feb. 8, 1946, he gave the
first performance of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto (unfinished when the
composer died the previous year), with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia
Orchestra. For information about and audio samples of his "Bartok:
Complete Solo Piano Music," see http://tinyurl.com/5h36o.
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