'A Natural History of the Piano' entertains
Book review: Stuart Isacoff's book "A Natural History of the Piano" documents the origins and importance of the piano, with stories of some of its most accomplished players, from Oscar Peterson to Alfred Brendel to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Special to The Seattle Times
'A Natural History of the Piano'
by Stuart Isacoff
Knopf, 416 pp., $30
This entertaining new book about the origins and the importance of the piano starts off not with the instrument's inventor (Bartolomeo Cristofori) or its most famous early advocate (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), but with an account of one of the last performances of jazz legend Oscar Peterson (1925-2007). For Stuart Isacoff — writer, pianist, composer, teacher — a great pianist is a great pianist, and the usual genre divisions aren't very important. What is important is the instrument that Isacoff calls "the center of the universe ... a role the piano has enjoyed for over three hundred years."
Isacoff's very inclusive approach is lightened by the style of the book, which will appeal even to those with short attention spans. This "Natural History" is a series of vignettes: historical notes on structural developments of the keyboard, punctuated with often humorous commentary on pianos and concerts by famous practitioners of the instrument.
There are snippets by Menahem Pressler (Beaux Arts Trio) of his adoration for his own instrument, "the Marilyn Monroe of pianos"; Alfred Brendel's advice to pianists to listen to great singers before attempting to play Mozart; and an account of Jerry Lee Lewis onstage, pulling out of his jacket a Coke bottle filled with gasoline, anointing his piano with it, setting it aflame, and continuing to pound out "Great Balls of Fire" before his astonished audience.
Crammed with great anecdotes and mini-essays, this book offers Andre Watts' views on "onstage charisma" (which he has in abundance); Garrick Ohlsson's surprising revelation about being "possessed" by the spirit of Scriabin; accounts of John Cage's philosophical turning point, and Liberace's views on the importance of melody. Isacoff ranges far and wide, from humorists Peter Schickele ("P.D.Q. Bach") and Victor Borge to the spectacular Vladimir Horowitz and his epic meeting with Rachmaninoff.
And what about the future? Isacoff points to young Chinese superstar Lang Lang and prizewinner Yundi Li as examples of one very major direction.
"Today, there are about 30 million children studying the piano in China," Li remarks. Chances are good that Isacoff's "center of the universe" is going to be around for some time to come.
Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).
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