At Nearly 100, World-Renowned Pianist Frank Glazer Still 'Getting Better'
TOPSHAM, Maine - Concert pianist Frank Glazer, who has lived in Maine for more than 30 years, is preparing to celebrate his 100th birthday. The internationally-renowned performer, who still holds a position as artist in residence at Bates College, spoke recently with Tom Porter at his home in Topsham about his early experienes in music and how they have shaped his approach to the piano.
In between yoga sessions, work outs with his personal trainer and writing letters to fans, Glazer still finds time to practice daily. "I'm as active as I was in junior high school," he says.
After a few bars of a Schubert Sonata, memories of his debut concert at The Town Hall in New York City come flooding back, nearly 80 years later. "Oh, it's quite vivid. For one thing, I had never played a whole recital program anywhere in my life," he says. "I didn't know what it would feel like to walk out on stage in New York and play a concert."
That 1936 concert, well-attended by critics, turned out to be a defining moment in Glazer's life, he says: the moment he went from being a piano player - a technician, basically - to being an artist and truly understanding the music. And it happened while he was playing the slow movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A minor.
"By the time I got that movement, I felt as if I was Schubert creating the piece at that moment, so I owned that piece," Glazer says. "And I understood it for the first time. It was a revelation to me. Schubert takes you about as close to heaven as you're going to get, in music."
In 1932, when he was just 17 years old, Glazer went to Berlin to study under the legendary Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. Having only a basic grasp of German, and not knowing a soul there, the teenager from Wisconsin found himself witnessing the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.
"It was a terrible time politically and economically in Germany," he says. "But the arts were great and thriving - the opera, concerts, literature, theater, museums, that was very exciting."
After Hitler came to power in 1933 Glazer followed Schnabel - who was Jewish - to Italy to continue his studies.
Glazer's long career has taken him all over the world, giving solo recitals and playing with some of the world's greatest symphony orchestras. Even in his later years,Glazer can still play at a high level. This recording, from 2006, when Glazer was in his early 90's, captures his performance of another Schubert Sonata at Bates College's Olin Arts Center. (Excerpt from concert)
Glazer says his playing technique, with an approach that lessened the impact on his hands without affecting the sound, was developed decades ago, when he was still in his 20's.
"After I played the Brahms B-flat Concerto at the Boston Symphony with Koussevitzky, and I'd played at Town Hall and so on, I was concertizing, I took time out to figure out how to play the piano in the most efficient manner, and also be able to get every kind of sound out of the given piano that I'm playing at the time," he says.
The important thing, says Glazer, is to keep the hand muscles relaxed on the keys - or as he puts it: "Hug 'em don't hit 'em - the keys - because a lot of people hit the key, they think they need to get it to go down, but you just start on the key surface and push it down."
After heart bypass surgery at the age of 86, Glazer's doctor recommended that he stop trying to memorize all the pieces he plays. Glazer says he now uses sheet music and feels much less stressed about performing. As he approaches his second century on earth, Glazer feels that his playing is better than ever.
"If you can keep doing what you love and what you've been doing all your life, why change when you're getting better at it still?" he says. "Like an actor studying Hamlet or Macbeth, the older you get and more you do it, the more you see in it, and you wonder why you didn't see that last time, or five years ago. But that's not how we learn. We grow if we're lucky."
Frank Glazer will celebrate his 100th birthday on Feb. 7 with a special concert at Bates College in Lewiston.