Muse Over Miami: A Conversation with Nanette Kaplan Solomon
Robert Shulshaper, Fanfare Magazine, Jan/Feb 2016
“Joy is the keynote of my existence. I don’t like people around me who are not cheerful. To me, one happy person is worth a million gloomy ones. I crave cheerfulness and take on its color like a chameleon.” Composer Mana-Zucca, the mostly forgotten author of those words, is now being reintroduced to the wider listening public through pianist Nanette Kaplan Solomon’s entertaining selection of her music, Badinage. Along with her sparkling performances, Solomon’s spontaneous, friendly personality and ready laughter would surely endear her to the composer.
How did you become aware of Mana-Zucca?
I have been investigating women composers for the last 20–25 years and I often go to conferences of The College Music Society, which is an umbrella organization that includes performers, composers, ethnomusicologists, and theorists among its members. They have national conferences every year and international conferences every two years, and I usually submit proposals for them. And for some reason, I don’t know why, the name Mana-Zucca attracted my attention: I’d seen it on a list somewhere, and I thought she was a woman and I was investigating a conference in Costa Rica. This was in 2003 and I thought, Mana-Zucca, maybe she’s Latina: Whenever I do an international conference I usually try to do some kind of repertoire that’s endemic to the area. So I said, oh, well, I’ll look it up and if she’s Latina that would be good for Costa Rica. I went to the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers and I found her, but not only was she not Latina, she was born Gussie Zuckerman; she was a Polish Jew and she spent a lot of time in Miami. And, funnily enough, the next National Conference of The College Music Society was going to be in the fall for Miami.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Yes, one of those odd coincidences. So I said, I’ll find something else for Costa Rica; but I looked up her life and she had written a ton of songs and a lot of piano music. And I contacted my soprano colleague, who’s really wonderful, and I said, let’s investigate, let’s find some songs and submit a proposal for Miami. So we submitted the proposal and were accepted. The scores were really hard to locate, but I did some inter-library loans and a lot of them were in the University of Miami and also at Florida International University. But anyway, we performed at the conference and while we were there, a faculty member from Florida International University read another presentation on Mana-Zucca, because all of her archives at that point—she had left 76 boxes of scrap books and scores when she died in Miami Beach, all of it in storage—had been given to Florida International University by Mana-Zucca’s family in a special collection. The professor giving the talk had invited some of Mana-Zucca’s family members to attend, in this case her daughter-in-law and a couple of her grandchildren. So I got to meet them there, but I didn’t do anything else with it for years.
How many songs did you perform?
I think about six or eight songs.
Had you read through many of her other songs before deciding?
Yes. I guess we looked through about 20 or 30 songs before making our final selection. However I only had four piano pieces at that point, which I had found in a volume published by Hildegard Press.
I’ve heard the name.
It’s based in eastern Pennsylvania and specializes in historical and contemporary women composers. Anyway, since the songs only took around 20 minutes to perform we wanted to fill out the program with some piano music. I had those four and I got one other piece that was a Cuban Dance; I played that. Then I got busy with other things until a few years ago, when I knew I had a sabbatical coming up. I was looking for a project and I thought it was so fascinating to read about Mana-Zucca and to talk to her relatives that I said, what if I just go and research her life? I was actually going to write a book, which I still may.
So that’s what I did. I spent that year researching, went to Miami for a couple of weeks….I happened to have performed at a conference in Orlando in the summer of 2012 and had gone to the Miami archives for three or four days, and so I went back again in March of 2013 and copied a lot; I just brought back a huge amount of music with me and then decided that I was going to record it. So the music that’s on the CD is only a fraction of what I uncovered.
In your notes you say that there are around a thousand different compositions. I don’t know how it’s distributed between songs and piano and orchestra, but that’s an immense amount of music.
It’s a huge amount of music.
So the next step was to interest a record company.
I already had several other CDs out on the Leonarda label (Character Sketches: Solo Piano Works by 7 American Women, Leonarda LE 334; Sunbursts: Piano Works by 7 American Women, Leonarda LE 345), and my first CD was of piano music by Nikolai Lopatnikoff on the Laurel label.
Not a woman. [laughing]
Not a woman. He was the subject of my dissertation. Anyway, a friend of mine had just finished recording with Albany and I knew that the label had a good reputation. So I contacted Susan Bush, the president of Albany Records, and explained the project. She knew of my work because for a while Albany was distributing Leonarda’s CDs. I had also recorded a piano and flute piece by Judith Lang Zaimont that was on one of her CDs and that was distributed by Albany. Albany specializes in either contemporary or just obscure composers, mostly American, so Susan really liked the idea.
What was it like learning to play Mana-Zucca’s music?
It was really fun because I’d gotten to be friendly with her grandkids—she had one son, but unfortunately he died in 1999. It was his second wife who was his widow, and although she had never met Mana-Zucca, she has some of her things. Mana-Zucca had a huge collection of miniature pianos, kind of like Liberace. She (the second wife) has some of them in her condo; she showed me some of those and some old posters—it was really fun. And two of Mana-Zucca’s grandsons live in Miami, so I spent some time with them when I was doing my research there. I interviewed them and talked to them about their grandmother. Her third grandchild lives in New Jersey and I was giving a presentation last year at a Society for American Music conference, playing about 45 minutes of Mana’s music, so he came. He filmed that performance, which you can see on YouTube.
I thought for a second that you were going to say that there was a video of Mana-Zucca. Is there any film of her playing or singing?
There isn’t, but there are a couple of records.
Yes, I’ve heard both her Piano and Violin Concertos on YouTube.
She put out the Piano Concerto by herself; it’s an LP and it has about seven or eight pieces in addition to the concerto. She also did recordings for Ampico, so some of her playing is preserved on piano rolls.
It’s a shame that more of her performances haven’t been preserved—and not only as a pianist. After all, she was successful as a solo singer and in operettas. Next stop, Hollywood: It would have seemed like a natural progression for her….
As far as I know, there wasn’t anything on film. But although there’s no film footage I do have a copy of her unpublished autobiography. It was sitting on a shelf in the special collections as I passed through.
Were you able to read any of it at that time?
They wouldn’t let me. Anyway, I said, “I really want this,” and the librarian said she’d have to talk to Bradley, Mana-Zucca’s grandson. I eventually got to talk to him and I said, I would really like to read this. So he digitized it and sent it to me. In that she talks about her whole European life, which I think is amazing. She spent seven years in Europe. Her sister, her married sister, accompanied her, which I think is kind of interesting. And while she was in Europe she attended some of Godowsky’s and Busoni’s master classes.
Another side of her European years that’s quite interesting: At the time it was a popular practice to distribute photographs as publicity postcards and she was apparently the most photographed person in Europe. There’s one photograph in her scrapbook that’s signed by Eugen d’Albert, another by Schnabel and whole bunches of famous people. And so, while she was touring and studying, she was at a dinner in England where Franz Lehár was a guest. After hearing her sing—she’d begun taking voice lessons in Europe—he apparently said they were mounting The Count of Luxembourg later that week and signed her up.
She acted on the stage and then she came back to America, where she was signed up to do The Rose Maid. She played the role of Daphne in that, and of Yum Yum in The Mikado in regional theater. She was friends with Gallagher and Sheen of the comedy team, Will Rogers, and others. In her memoirs she says that she gave up doing operetta and musicals and theater because she felt it wasn’t really fulfilling the high artistic goals that she had, but according to her grandson, she wasn’t getting roles because she was very short. I think she was barely five feet tall; she was very diminutive. But then she reinvented herself once more. She was trying to become a pianist again and apparently it was difficult, so then she started composing full time.
I want to also say that she lied about her age constantly, so there are various birthdates. If you look at Grove’s Dictionary, certain sources like Baker’s Biographical Dictionary and so forth, some say 1887, some say 1889, one of them says 1894, but I actually have a copy of her birth certificate and it is Christmas Day, December 25, 1885. When she’s writing her memoirs, it’s really kind of fascinating, because she’s talking about being this child when she’s going through Europe. And really, if she left in 1906, at that point she was 21. And then she talks about when she met her husband and about being a young bride, and she was 36. [laughs]
Maybe she just thought it was more appealing to present herself that way.
I think one did that then. I just read something about someone else, I can’t remember whom, where it was the same story, with varying birthdates. Mana-Zucca’s grandson said she didn’t even want to get Social Security because she didn’t want anyone to know how old she was.
In some of the photographs she reminded me of Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.
She has kind of a smiling, radiant quality.
It’s the face of a person who would write a song called I Love Life. I saw it performed on YouTube by someone wearing a costume lifted right out of a Sigmund Romberg operetta.
I know, isn’t that great! [laughs]
Is that how it would have been performed on the stage? This wasn’t from an operetta of her own, was it?
No, no, no, that was just a separate song. What she says about the story of that song is that when she first got married, she would stay home and her husband would go to work and she would write something. And he came back from work one day and apparently she had written this prelude. So she said, “What do you think?” “Oh, it’s really nice, why don’t you write something a little brighter.” So the next day he came home and she’d written her Bolero de Concert, and he said, “Well I mean something really light.” So she said, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you write some words and I’ll write a song.” This is the mythology. And so he did write the words for that song.
I’ve read that he wrote the words to many of her songs, and I thought that was interesting since he was a businessman.
But I think he was musically trained.
Of course, being a businessman doesn’t preclude having other talents.
I think he actually had piano training and he knew her when she was much younger. That song, by the way, was recorded by Nelson Eddy.
He’d be a natural for that type of thing.
And Paul Anka.
That surprised me when I read it. Somehow I couldn’t quite put the two together.
According to her grandson, I don’t think she was thrilled with Anka’s rendition.
So I Love Life was a big success for her?
Yes, I think that song was very successful. And it helped make her a prominent figure, especially in Miami. When they first got married I believe they spent half of the year in Miami, but she still kept an apartment in New York. So they went back and forth between New York and Miami. But when they built their house in Florida, it was designed so that there was an 80-foot living room and she could have concerts in there. And so she started having these Mana-Zucca Music Club concerts weekly.
Did she make money from that?
I don’t think so.
She just wanted to have a regular musical showcase.
Yes. So other people played some of her music, and sometimes she did. It’s kind of like a lot of women in history, who have had to promote themselves through the back door.
Certainly women were not always encouraged to follow their muse. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, although respected as instrumentalists, were discouraged from being composers and didn’t always have a forum for their works.
But Fanny Mendelssohn is the one who had salons.
I didn’t know that.
She wasn’t supposed to perform publicly because of her class, but everybody who was anybody came through her doors in Berlin, where they could hear her music. I think Mana-Zucca’s Miami situation was similar.
But it’s not only women who have been neglected; many male composers have fallen by the wayside.
Oh, absolutely. But I think it’s what one of the women music historians has called the silent eraser of history. You might know about them but then somehow they get eclipsed. I taught a class on Women in Music and in it we would read Clara Schumann’s journal entries, in which she would write about her insecurities and say, “I don’t know why I think I can be a composer, no woman has done it before me.” That’s clearly not true….
Maybe she didn’t have access to the necessary sources.
Exactly. They were there, but people didn’t have the continuum.
It’s a fascinating topic and I’m all for getting anyone’s music recorded regardless of gender. The one thing I’m skeptical of is whether it’s possible to know the sex of the composer merely by listening, as some claim. And various musicologists have taken it even further, declaring that one can detect sexual proclivities in music: To me that’s absurd.
I don’t know. I’m just about to review a book that talks about Louise Talma and how her music is kind of coded. Sometimes I buy it, sometimes I don’t.
You could certainly encode a message in music by establishing correspondences between letters and tones, but without the key, how could you decipher it? The message wouldn’t be revealed through the sound alone.
Whatever the plight of earlier women composers, Mana-Zucca was quite celebrated in her day.
Yes, but I think she did fall into neglect after her lifetime. Also, the music is not cutting-edge, except for the Third Sonata, which is a little more dissonant and which I did not record. Generally the music is rather conservative; it’s what I would call very audience friendly. And she wasn’t affiliated with the university and in the 20th century that’s kind of the way….
Not necessarily a tragedy in my opinion. [laughing]
There’s nothing wrong with accessible music.
The music has such a flow to it and it’s melodically ingratiating.
Yet some of it does veer towards what was considered modern at the time.
Yes, the later works do.
Once she started her publishing company, is it safe to assume that the average amateur musician was buying her music?
I think so.
Previously, her music had also been published by Schirmer.
Schirmer published her things in the 1910s and 1920s. John Church was another one of her publishers; I think he did a lot of the songs. But everything after that was produced by her own company.
When was that?
Probably during the 1930s. And as I’ve mentioned, even the recordings that she made were also self-produced. I can’t remember the details, but the record label is a portmanteau of her grandchildren’s names.
Speaking of names, was she “Gussie” or not?
She never admits that her name is Gussie in her own writing. Apparently she was christened Gussie—but she says her name was Giselle. Then when she started taking lessons with Alexander Lambert in New York, when she was really young—he was her mentor and major teacher—he changed her name to Augusta. So she was performing when she was a child; that’s the other thing—all these blurbs about her, that she apparently played Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto when she was eight, she was really 11. And when she was in Europe she was Augusta Zuckerman. I think she really changed her name for the theater.
Nineteen twenty-six was a pivotal year for her.
Yes, there was a horrible hurricane that year. Her husband had some stores with his brother-in-law and the hurricane devastated their business. I think the store flooded and that, followed by the Great Depression, was what sent the family into a financial decline. I think her husband had other investments, but it’s around then that Mana-Zucca took on students and started the publishing business in an effort to generate more income. According to Ruth Greenfield—she’s now about 88 or 89, and was a student of Mana-Zucca’s when she was very young—Mana-Zucca may have been their main support at the time.
Was Ruth Greenfield her piano student?
Yes, she studied piano with her.
Did Mana-Zucca teach voice as well?
I think she gave coaching in voice, because I spoke to somebody else who was a singer who ran a concert series in Miami. She said Mana-Zucca always had really great advice for her and was very upset with her because she didn’t go on for a big operatic career.
From the story you told about the husband coming home on successive days to find a new piece waiting for him, it seems she wrote very quickly.
I think she did.
My impression from watching you play is that the music is gratefully written and lies well under the hand, as pianists like to say.
Oh yes, I was hoping we were going to get to that. Yes, it really is.
And I’m sure it helps that you have a very fluent technique.
Well, thank you. I do a lot of contemporary music and it was so gratifying to be playing this lush tonal music.
Besides songs and solo piano works, Mana-Zucca wrote for the orchestra. You’ve mentioned the Piano and Violin Concertos; is there anything else of note?
Yes, there were two operas, one of which came very close to being performed in Philadelphia, but alas was not. Also, some of her piano pieces were orchestrated, specifically the Humoresque and The Zouave’s Drill. She had help from Ferde Grofé for those particular orchestrations. She also apparently had another pseudonym for her popular works, which was Ella Della. She wrote several popular ballads using that pseudonym. She also was the host of a radio show.
What was it like?
I’m not really sure.
Too bad there aren’t any old air checks to listen to.
I haven’t come across any, although I’ve found notices about them in her scrapbook.
Unfortunately radio stations don’t always realize that these documents might be of interest to posterity.
Right. She also did another kind of thing called a Pianologue, with which she entertained the troops during the war. It was like a monologue with piano and songs interspersed.
I would love to have seen that.
Yes, me too. What’s really interesting is that I just did a presentation on ragtime by Indianapolis women at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and I was reading about Julia Lee Niebergall, who was a ragtime composer in Indianapolis. There were so many things that reminded me of Mana-Zucca. She was born around 1887—she also lied about her age [laughs]—and died in 1968. It talked about her doing these piano skits. So apparently that was a popular thing in the 1910s and early 20s. I don’t know if there are any movies of them, but I think the scripts are in Miami.
When you said “women ragtime composers in Indianapolis,” I was going to say, who knew!
Are her other songs similar to I Love Life?
The songs are very varied. There’s one other song that became very famous; it was called The Big Brown Bear. It’s a children’s song with a repeating refrain, “And the big brown bear said woof,” and she had her grandchildren practice that. She also did a whole pedagogical series for children. But the songs are very varied. Some of them are in French, some of them are in German….
She probably was poly-lingual, having lived in Europe for seven years.
Yes, I think she was. Some of the songs are very lush, Impressionistic, like Fauré. She also did some songs based on Hebrew themes. She has a very nice song called Sholom Alechem, which my colleague has sung; she sang it really, really well. It’s very declamatory and broad. The piano parts in the songs are also very lush, very gratifying.
Reading about Mana-Zucca, one thing that struck me was what a vigorous concert life there was in Miami.
Yes, but I think when she first moved there, there was not. Miami was just starting to bloom. And she was a big figure in that sort of cultural enhancement of the city.
Did she perform in concert halls there in addition to her soirees?
Yes, she did. I think she did her concerto with an orchestra there, at the University of Miami.
How did the critics respond?
It depends on the critic! You know, she played not in the first Paul Whiteman concert that introduced Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but the second one. Apparently they did another one in November of 1924, and she was on that program. They performed orchestrated versions of the Valse Brilliant and the Zouave’s Drill, and the critics were not terribly impressed. But when her later works were coming out, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the National Piano Guild or the Federation of Music Clubs would always write up “a new piece by Mana-Zucca” and the reviews were all very favorable.
Since her music was performed on one of the Whiteman concerts, I wonder if she met Gershwin.
She may have. I think Memories on the CD sounds very much like Gershwin.
Do you think she followed the latest trends in music, or was she content to go her own way?
I think the later works, like the Second Sonata, the Scherzando, and Badinage, were more Neoclassical than anything, but I think they have shades of Shostakovich and Prokofiev in them. She certainly didn’t dabble in Serialism or other academic techniques that were around.
No, I wouldn’t think so. Earlier in her career she played music by other composers. Did she ever do that later on?
Not that I know of. I don’t know what she was supposed to be playing when she got married; she apparently was supposed to have a big tour of the Midwest and she gave it up.
Setting Mana-Zucca aside for a moment, tell me more about your work promoting and recording the works of other less well-known figures: Lopatnikoff, for example.
My first CD was devoted to his piano music.
That’s another interesting tale. I had come to western Pennsylvania in 1977 for my university position and I was “all but dissertation,” so I was looking for a topic. I really, really, really wanted to write about the Wanderer Fantasy. That was my fantasy! And so I did some research and I finally talked to my advisor about what I was doing and he said, “If you’re going to do this topic the way I want you to, you’re going to have to read everything that was ever written about every piece of Schubert in every language and you’re going to have to compare it to every other piece he wrote.”
I’m not sure that that could be done.
Right, exactly. He said, “You’re going to be old and gray, you’re going to have to postpone childbearing”—I was seven months pregnant at the time! So anyway, he said, “Find something that has a beginning and an end.” So I said, “Would you suggest something?” He said, “No, I’ll comment, but I won’t suggest.” And I just had heard—because I was living near Pittsburgh—the name Lopatnikoff mentioned on public radio. He was kind of a local hero; he taught at Carnegie Mellon for a long time. So I thought, I wonder if he wrote any piano music. I looked it up and sure enough, he’d written quite a bit of piano music. So I called my advisor and said, what do you think about Lopatnikoff. And he said, “Oh, he was a Neoclassical guy writing about the same time as Copland. Find out if you like the music, because you have to spend a lot of time with it.” I thought that was really good advice. So I went to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, obtained scores, wrote my dissertation, and then I decided to record the piano music (as well as several pieces for violin and piano with violinist Mischa Lefkowitz from California). So again, it was just a name that dropped out of the ether.
And since then I’ve always been looking for different kinds of repertoire. About 20 years ago, when I first started exploring women composers, I came across a book by Judith Lang Zaimont, who is a composer herself. She and Karen Famera had written a book called Contemporary Concert Music by Women. I started looking through that and I wrote to The American Music Center and got a lot of scores. I started to perform some of those pieces and I met the composers, or most of them. For my first CD I’d prepared a piece by Tania Leon—I recorded Momentum—but while I had met most of the other composers from the CD and had gotten a chance to play for them, it hadn’t worked out with her. And she was leaving for Germany for five weeks just before I was set to record, so I called her and I played it for her on the phone [laughs]: Before Skype, way before Skype.
I imagine it’s always better if you can play for the composer, provided he or she is open-minded and willing to work with you.
Well, I had a terrible experience years ago when I was in graduate school in Boston. I was entering the University of Maryland Piano Competition, which is now the Kapell Competition, and it had a list of required contemporary pieces that you had to learn. One of them was by Leon Kirchner. I said, I’ll learn his sonata and I’ll go play it for him because he’s right here at Harvard. So I went and played it for him, and he listened to it and then he sat back and he said, “I don’t really like hearing my music played.” And I thought, I went through all this work….But I think the issue really was that he’d written the sonata in 1948, and this was 1976.
So he’d moved on from that kind of writing.
Yes. I think he’d moved on.
Too bad you didn’t know that before you picked the piece. [laughing] Seriously, I’m sure the rest of the world would be happy to hear it; it’s just that he didn’t want to.
Right. So anyway, that was “interesting.” But my other experiences were more positive. For example, for the first CD, I had met Jane Brockman, whose music is on the CD, and Victoria Bond. And I met and played for Judy Lang Zaimont.
My second CD also featured seven different American women and I met Emma Lou Diemer; she was wonderful. I played a piece for her at her home in Santa Barbara because I happened to be in the area giving a concert. So that’s what I’ve spent the last several years doing, in addition to playing traditional repertoire.
Was Lopatnikoff still alive when you did your dissertation?
No, unfortunately. He died in 76. But I did meet his widow, his second wife, and she was a very lovely poet; they had met at the Macdowell Colony. I was able to interview her for my dissertation, and was sorry to find out that she passed away right before my CD was released.
Do you still prefer to research and perform contemporary music?
I have mixed feelings. I love playing the traditional repertoire, but I wouldn’t record any of it. It would just get lost in the shuffle. Obviously I feel like I might have something to say if I were doing Chopin or Beethoven, but I would never think of putting it out there. I just wouldn’t do that. But when I was recording the contemporary women who were alive, I felt like I was doing a service for them and making a real contribution. And the same thing with Mana-Zucca—I feel like I’m bringing something back.
Did Mana-Zucca belong to any composer’s groups?
I don’t think so. I think she was just very involved in what she was doing in Miami. I think she may have spoken at various clubs.
She certainly kept busy.
Yes. But while it seemed she always had so much fun, she was very disciplined. Ruth Greenfield, the woman who studied with her, says she would come to lessons in the morning and Mana-Zucca’s fingers would be black with ink from writing all night.
Obviously she must have worked very hard to produce all that music, to keep up her technique, and to be a good teacher. I wonder if people like this ever sleep. Getting back to the CD for a moment, is any of this music readily available?
Pretty much all of it is out of print. I gave a former student a copy of the CD and he just texted me a couple of weeks ago asking how he could get copies of the music if he wanted to play some of it.
You’ll have to digitize it yourself.
Or perhaps her family’s going to have to think about doing something like that.
I hope they’ll consider it. Now I’d like to hear more about you: When did you first become attracted to music?
Apparently when I was four years old I really wanted a harp. I must have seen a harpist on television and told my parents I wanted a harp. And they said, what are we going to do with a harp? And so, when I was six, they bought a piano and I started taking piano lessons with a friend of the family. I think first they had talked to some teacher and he said, well, I’ll give her six months and if she doesn’t take to it by then, I can’t be bothered. So my parents said, well forget it, we don’t know if we want to do that to her. Instead they just called a friend of the family and I went to her house for lessons every week. And then, without even consulting her, when I was nine I guess my parents heard about the Juilliard Preparatory Division (now the Pre-College) and so my mother said, I think you should take an audition for them.
Where were you living at the time?
We were living in Canarsie in Brooklyn and when I was nine—the same year, the year of the audition—we were moving to North Woodmere in the Five Towns. So anyway, my mother said I think you should take this audition, so I went in….
You did it without preparation, just playing whatever you knew?
I just went in, played two pieces, and got a letter that I was accepted. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. [laughs] And when you’re nine years old you don’t get nervous for an audition. So then I started going to Juilliard Prep every week, every Saturday; that’s when it was in Harlem.
Wasn’t it around 122nd street?
Yes, 122nd and Claremont, which is where the Manhattan School is now. I had a wonderful teacher whose name was Edgar Roberts (he passed away in 2003). He made me keep a journal of how long I practiced and I started off with an hour, and every year it would be, well, an hour, that’s for six-year olds.
I’d like to see the six-year old that does it, though! [laughing]
Right. You’re nine, you need to practice an hour and a half. And then it was, you’re picking up, you’re 11 now, you need to practice more.
I recently saw a 10-year-old playing the Chopin Étude in thirds on YouTube: I couldn’t believe it.
Isn’t that disgusting [said with humor]. So anyway, week after week, he would challenge me. Sometimes he gave me things that were way beyond what I could do … and he’d say, we’ll put that on the shelf. I got exposed to a lot of music. And apparently I was a terrible sight-reader until I was around 14 and somehow, from having seen so much music, it just kind of clicked.
I also have to say that Juilliard was great because I met people there who became life-long friends, and my teacher was really inspiring and always encouraged me to practice. When I was 14, Brooklyn College had a concerto competition, so I auditioned for it: I played the first movement of Beethoven’s Third, as I knew it really well. Then they asked me to play it again, they had somebody accompany me on a second piano, and then they said, can you play some of the second movement? Ah! I knew maybe a page. Then they said, can you play some of the third movement? Again, I knew a page. Then I found out that I had won the competition and the concert was in three weeks and it was going to be the whole concerto.
So what happened?
What happened? I came home from school, practiced four hours a day, seven hours on weekends, and in the end it went well. And after that my mother said, Oh my God, look how much you improved just in these three weeks; imagine if you practiced like that all the time. That same summer I went to Merrywood Music School, in Lenox, Massachusetts. And that was also kind of a life-changing experience, just to be with other musicians. After that I did music programs every summer. I had a fellowship to Tanglewood between high school and college. I spent a summer in Aspen; that’s where I started studying with Rosina Lhévinne. That was the summer before my senior year in high school, and that’s also when I decided I could not go to Juilliard any longer.
Why was that?
Aspen was like a complete little Juilliard. Remember, I had already spent nine years in prep. People literally would run for the early bus at 7:40 in the morning, go into the practice rooms, practice till lunch—you’re amidst gorgeous scenery, right?—then have lunch, talk about their fifth fingers and their Chopin études, and go back and practice some more. And I just found that it was so much tunnel vision—I couldn’t do it. So when it came time for college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was originally going to try to go to Juilliard and to Barnard at the same time. I applied to both schools, and to Radcliffe, Yale, Oberlin, and Rochester. I was accepted everywhere, but Barnard and Juilliard said that I wasn’t eligible for a dormitory because I lived within commuting distance.
That’s a big trek from North Woodmere to Juilliard.
That’s a big trek. I would have had to pay tuition at both schools and pay for an apartment in the city. So I decided that was not an option and I went to Yale because there was a music school right there. And then after my freshman year I spent the summer at Fontainebleau, where I took some harmony lessons with Nadia Boulanger.
I could never have survived that; I don’t have that kind of ear.
Oh, my God. My favorite story, and I love telling this to my students year after year.…Well, first of all, you had to write your harmony using four clefs: soprano, which nobody ever uses any more, alto, tenor, and bass. After you wrote your harmony exercises, you had to go to her little apartment and play them for her. So I probably wrote them right but I was trying to read them [laughs], and so she’d say, “Nanette, second measure”—“Okay” [in a tremulous voice].
On one occasion I played the first movement of the Schumann Concerto in a master class for Robert Casadesus—he was visiting. She had been listening and when I came for my next harmony lesson, she apparently didn’t like something about my voicing, so she said, “Nanette, play me the A♭-Major section of the Schumann.” So I did and then she said, “Play me a Bach fugue.” And I’m … [makes all sorts of comic noises to indicate her discomfort … both laugh]. Then she said, “You don’t know a Bach fugue?” “Oh yes, I’ve studied Bach fugues, but I don’t remember any.” And she said, “Do you forget your friends after you meet them?” [laughter] The ultimate putdown.
Did she teach in English?
Yes. I made the mistake one time of saying something in French because I used to speak pretty good French. And then she started speaking very rapidly in French and I said, no more. I couldn’t keep up.
I keep meaning to watch Mademoiselle, the documentary about her.
It’s excellent. We had a VHS of it at Slippery Rock and I showed it to my students.
That would make them glad they were studying with you, right? [chuckles]
I’ve seen it tons of times.
But seriously, why did you want to study with her?
I think I just heard about the program there and I wanted to go.
She must have been an intimidating presence.
Oh, I know. I could either have quit the piano completely or I could have gone home and learned and memorized all of the Bach Preludes and Fugues. I did neither. [laughing]
Are there any other teachers you’d like to say a few words about?
Yes. Well, at Yale I studied with Ward Davenny. I did Yale in three years. I graduated from the college in three years and then I stayed an extra year and did a Master’s in the Music School. That was the first year that Claude Frank was on the faculty, and he was wonderful. Actually, I was his only student at that time. He had heard me play at a master class or a concert and chose me. I was going to stay at Yale but … I don’t know if you know about the Yale Doctorate? What you did was, you did your course work, you got a Master of Musical Arts, and then instead of doing a dissertation you would go out in the world for three or four years, prove yourself, and then come back. Then they would decide whether to give you the doctorate. And that sounded a little too scary and a little too political to me, at my tender age. [laughs]
So anyway, I applied to Boston University; I could have done another Master’s at Juilliard but chose not to. So I went to BU and studied with Leonard Shure. He was just an amazing pianist, but because of his personality and his nerves he didn’t have the kind of career that he should have had. It was amazing playing; he was, you know, Schnabel’s assistant. I think he also ticked off managers; he could be very abrasive, hard to deal with.
Was he like that with you?
Yes. However I leaned an incredible amount. I was basically brought up with Russian technique and sound, but I learned so much about architecture from him and about Schnabel, the Germanic thing. It was a whole different way of going into the keyboard. So I think my playing now is a sort of a synthesis.
Germanic influence or not, there’s something about your keyboard fluency that made me think you’d be well suited to French music.
I have a feeling for French music. I love playing French music. I could play Poulenc, Ravel, and Debussy the rest of my life. And Schubert. [laughs] I was telling somebody the other day, if I could just play Schubert and Poulenc my whole life, I’d be happy. So he said, “What about your women?” [laughs] It was interesting studying with Shure because he was so much in the Schnabel school that, for the Germanic repertoire, he would try to tell you, pretty much, how to interpret every note. We used to joke about how many lessons it would take to get through a Schubert sonata. I would bring in the first movement of a Schubert sonata and we would spend a really long time working on it. I wanted a varied program for my doctoral recital, so I brought in the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. I played the first one: “Lovely, darling.” Go to the next one: “Lovely, darling.” [laughs] Of course he had nothing to say. Another time I got really angry when I brought in the Chopin Fourth Ballade and I played about four pages and he said, “Darling, that’s beautiful but I don’t understand it.”
What do you suppose he meant?
He didn’t understand the phrase structure. I remember I went down to the basement where the practice rooms were, ran into my friend’s room and threw my music across the room—“He could tell me how to play Beethoven, he could tell me how to play Schubert, but damn it he’s not going to tell me how to play Chopin!” However, when I did go back and play it again, in retrospect what he said made a lot of sense.
Well at least you kept an open mind. [laughs]
He was also….I was working on Schumann’s Kreisleriana and he’d yell at me, “Can’t you relax!” [laughs] Not when you’re yelling at me like that!
That’s very funny. In any case, lessons and traditions aside, why do you play the piano?
I just find it so gratifying. I have a really sensual relationship with the instrument. I just love the sound, love the feel.
Do you like teaching?
Yes, I do like teaching. I like teaching a lot. I had a wonderfully rewarding 37-year career teaching piano and music history at Slippery Rock University, but am surprisingly happy to be retired now!
Still, you’re always performing.
Yes, I’m trying to play as much as I can. I just joined a group in Pittsburgh called The Tuesday Musical Club. It’s one of the oldest surviving music clubs.
Do you play chamber music too?
I had a trio at school, the Slippery Rock Piano Trio, but right now our violinist is really busy and our cellist is raising two little kids, so we have currently disbanded. But I do chamber music with other people. We also started a little music festival in our hometown, in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
How is it doing?
We’re working on it. It’s called Renova. The artistic director is a horn player and a conductor in Alexandria, Louisiana. But he’s from New Castle, and he approached me 10 years ago and said he wanted to start a pre-professional two-week chamber orchestra here, and I just laughed. I mean, there’s not a string program in our entire county. This is kind of a rust-belt area. I said it would never fly. But he came back four years ago with a little bit of seed money and I’m now on the board. He brings in some really great people to teach and I’ve gotten to play chamber music with them, so that’s fun.
“If you build it, they will come.”
We’re hoping. This year we got more grants and we got more money, so that’s good. I also play with my sister. My sister lives in Jericho [Long Island] and she also has a doctorate in piano.
Did she ever pursue teaching at the university level?
She taught at Poly Prep in Brooklyn. Then, when she and her husband moved to Long Island to raise their family, the commute was not feasible. So she hasn’t been teaching, she’s just been freelancing. We’ve been playing together a lot.
Sister acts are pretty common in duo piano teams.
I think it’s kind of cool. Growing up, we didn’t play together except at family holiday gatherings, where we’d entertain by reading easy four-hand music. But then, I think it was around 1987 when we first decided—we’d both done a lot of four-hand music with other people—to play together professionally. And we said, you know, we really just click. There’s something about that familial bond that really works. So we’ve been playing together ever since. If you want, you can hear sound clips on our web site; it’s kaplanduo.com. That’s another thing to work on in my retirement.
Earlier you briefly mentioned working with Rosina Lhévinne. Did you continue with her in New York?
Yes. I think she was 89 at the time. I had studied with her at Aspen and then, when I came back to Juilliard during my last year in high school, I studied with Mr. Roberts three times a month and I would go to her apartment once a month. She would forget when my lesson was, but she would not forget what I had played. One time she didn’t like the way I was phrasing the octave Cs in the Chopin A♭-Major Ballade, so she said, “Play me that section again,” singing dum de dum, de dum in her baritone.
I also took some lessons with Jacob Lateiner in New York, and with Leon Fleisher in Baltimore when I was living in Pennsylvania and teaching at Slippery Rock.
Before you go, are you planning to record anything else?
Not at the moment. My colleague at Slippery Rock is an expert on the songs of Lee Hoiby. We’ve been performing them a lot and we’re hoping to record them, but we don’t have any set plans for that yet. Hoiby was a great song composer. I have some of his piano music, which I don’t love, but the piano parts for the songs—he was an amazing pianist—are great: I guess the texts really inspired him, and they’re very gratifying.
So, that’s it for now. And if something else catches my fancy that hasn’t been done, then I’ll think about doing it.