Interview with Richard Zimdars

by Walter Simmons



Richard Zimdars is a pianist who has been on the faculty of the University of Georgia for almost thirty years. Although he has maintained an active career as a pianist, he loves teaching and embraces an identity as an “academic” with pride. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he attended the University of Wisconsin, at Milwaukee, studied in Germany on a Fulbright Grant, and then did graduate work at Boston University and the University of Iowa.

At the University of Georgia he holds the position of Despy Karlas Professor of Piano, named for a much beloved member of the University of Georgia piano faculty, who died in 2010 at the age of 91. She had made a number of endowments, among them the chair that bears her name, and which Zimdars is the first to occupy. He has given master classes in many countries of the world, and his writings have been published in a variety of piano-related publications. His translations of The Piano Master Classes of Hans von Bülow and The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt are published by the Indiana University Press. He was also the artistic director of America’s most ambitious festival honoring the recent Liszt Bicentennial, under the auspices of the American Liszt Society.

Zimdars traces his attraction to American music back some 45 years, when he first discovered Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, and this is an interest he has nurtured ever since. His latest recording (in the liner notes of which I am quoted generously), Persichetti and Pupils,follows previous Albany releases: one dedicated to music by Ives, Copland, Cowell, and Rudhyar, and the other to music by Roy Harris. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with him this latest recording, as well as other related subjects.

How was it that you happened to encounter Copland’s Piano Variations, and what was your initial reaction to it?

In 1966 my undergraduate teacher, Richard Neher, suggested Copland’s Piano Variations as a good choice for a twentieth-century work to complete my sophomore recital.  My fascination with Copland’s ability to build a large piece from such minimal thematic material was immediate. I was instantly attracted to the later, lively variations, but was a bit impatient with some of the less active variations, to which Copland assigned rather slow metronome marks. Over the years, I’ve heard performances in which some variations are played 15-20% faster than the score indicates. I think such speeds are detrimental to the listener’s clear reception of the music, so I’ve stuck closely to Copland’s indicated speeds.

Who are some of the people who influenced the course of your musical development most deeply?

In addition to Richard Neher, my other piano teachers, who were not shy about playing contemporary music.  Bela Nagy, who gave the Budapest premiere of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, assigned me Schoenberg’s Suite für Klavier, Ives’s Sonata No. 1, and a piece from Messiaen’s Catalogue of the Birds. Carl Seemann was performing and recording Bartók and Stravinsky in the 1950s. John Simms was the first person, with violinist Rafael Druian, to record all the Ives violin and piano sonatas. James Avery, an extraordinary pianist who played and recorded Wolpe, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, and Wuorinen, was also a conductor of the most challenging repertoire for large chamber ensembles.

The first indoor concert I can remember was when my father took me to hear Nathan Milstein perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. This was in 1957. Growing up hearing the CSO in the standard repertoire was a priceless experience. As a high school student I had the good fortune to study French horn for two years with the legendary John Barrows. Barrows’s magnificent lyrical playing has remained with me to this day, and can be heard on the recent issue from Bridge Records of the Brahms Horn Trio, performed at the Library of Congress. My high school experience of playing first horn in works like Pines of Rome, Don Juan, and the Brahms 4th Symphony with Milwaukee’s Music for Youth Orchestra, under conductor Milton Weber, a pupil of Monteux, greatly expanded my horizons.      Pianists William Masselos and David Burge, both champions of new music, are people I greatly admire. Peter Serkin and Garrick Ohlsson have done much to bring newer music to audiences. Both deserved a place in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series of recordings, but were unfortunately not included.

Persichetti and Pupils is an intriguing concept. Persichetti taught an enormous number of musicians who have gone on to considerable acclaim, from Thelonious Monk to Philip Glass to Lowell Liebermann. What gave you the idea to do this recording, and how did you select the composers to include?

I had owned the scores to several of the pieces in this album for close to twenty years, and had taught the Persichetti Ninth Sonata for the first time in 1993. I bought the Druckman score because of its title, and first performed it and the Persichetti sonata about ten years ago.  Around that time I had a doctoral student, You-Ju Lee, who was acquainted with Marga Richter and wanted to do her dissertation on Richter’s piano music. I remember looking at the bright red cover of Marga Richter’s Piano Sonata in Chicago’s Carl Fischer music store on Wabash Avenue decades ago, but my initial contact with it came when You-Ju Lee performed it on one of her doctoral recitals. Later, I learned the piece myself and first played it in public in 2006.

What are the qualities that appeal to you about Persichetti’s music? Have you played many of his works, besides the two featured here?

My engagement with Persichetti’s music is limited to his piano works and some of his chamber music. The only two of his piano works that I’ve performed publicly are the two on this recording. One of the four graduate seminars in keyboard literature that I teach is titled United States Piano Music: 1900-2000, so I was duty-bound to investigate his piano output. In the process, it became clear that Persichetti was not a composer who could be pigeonholed. I am drawn toward his piano works written after 1950. The Ninth Sonata has transparent piano writing and is a unified work of modest proportions. It is well-written for the piano, as is Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice is the last of Persichetti’s dozens of piano works, composed a year before his death in 1987. What can you tell us about the piece?

Winter Solstice is a through-composed 13-minute tone poem with, at times, much denser pedaled textures than those of the Ninth Sonata. Displaying a motivic unity that supports its considerable length, it alternates calm and agitated episodes. Lyrical duets form a good portion of the quiet music, offering the pianist a chance to mold each part, producing an expressive dialogue. The massed sonorities produced by Persichetti’s detailed pedal instructions stand in contrast to the leaner sound of much of his piano writing. The score presents opportunities for the pianist to execute imaginative voicings, rubati, and mood changes.

Some have speculated that it was an intentionally valedictory work. Are there aspects that confirm or contradict this impression?

My response to the piece leads me to think so. In it I find nostalgia, longing, resignation, and its closing strikes me as serene yet inconclusive.

You have included a little-known early work by Jacob Druckman, a composer certainly not associated with piano music. What drew you to this piece?

The works of Druckman that I first heard were his Animus series of pieces for instruments and tape and his orchestral work Windows that received the 1972 Pulitzer Prize. In the early 1990s I played his Duo for violin and piano several times with the excellent violinist Alexander Ross, with whom I recorded the Ives and Roy Harris violin sonatas. As I mentioned, I purchased the score of The Seven Deadly Sins because of the title of the piece, and have had it in my active repertoire for about a decade. I found it puzzling that a piano work of major proportions by a distinguished American composer, and published by a leading firm had received so little attention. Maybe because it is in a more conservative style than Druckman’s later works? It is well-written for the pianist, with “Envy,” “Avarice,” and “Carnality” presenting the greatest challenges of execution. But what opportunities for interpretive flights of characterization! Who wouldn’t have fun playing variations titled “Anger” or “Sloth?”  And moving from “Gluttony” to the wild habañera of “Carnality” is sheer delight for me, and I hope for listeners as well!

And what about Marga Richter, one of Persichetti’s lesser-known students? You include three of her works. Have you developed a particular enthusiasm for her music?

As I said, my initial exposure to her music was via my doctoral student You-Ju Lee, who wrote her dissertation on Richter’s piano music. As her dissertation supervisor, I had to look at all of Richter’s piano music. I liked what I found, and immediately added Remembrances, a four-minute nocturne-like piece, to my active repertoire. The title of this piece can make one a bit nervous when playing it by memory! I learned Richter’s Eight Pieces for Piano for this recording, and hope to play them in public sometime soon.

As you say, she is one of the lesser-known students of Persichetti, but her accomplishments are not of a lesser order. She was the first woman to be awarded a degree in composition from the Juilliard School. Early in her career she was published by Carl Fischer, a major publisher. Artists of the caliber of Menahem Pressler, William Masselos, and Walter Trampler recorded her works during the LP era.  Many a composer would be pleased to have had their works performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Atlanta and Milwaukee Symphonies, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, as has been her good fortune. Richter’s orchestral works have been recorded by the London Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, and the Czech Radio and Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestras.

Do you have other recordings in the planning stage? Other American music perhaps?

I hope to make a recording devoted to character pieces for piano written after 1950. American composers would be included, as would composers from Asia and Europe. The stylistic range would be wide.

I am very concerned about the role that classical music will play in America’s future, what with the dwindling of music classes in public schools, and the evident aging of audiences at classical music events. As someone who has enjoyed direct contact with young people for many years, what is your perspective on the future of this art form? What kinds of changes have you witnessed over the years?

I share your concern with developing a future audience for classical music in America.

Growing up attending the Chicago Symphony’s ten-concert season in Milwaukee was my prime formative “classical music” experience, along with my piano and French horn lessons.  Attendance at those concerts was by no means restricted to the upper classes or elderly in those days, although much German was spoken among the older crowd during intermissions.  A Central European ambience was surely in evidence.  At home, the music played on our record player was the standard repertoire from Bach to Debussy. This music, and also the sounds of singers like Björling, Milanov, Warren, Albanese, Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, John Charles Thomas, and Risë Stevens were – fortunately! – the sounds locked into my brain at an early age.  Musical memories are involuntary and reflexive. My tastes were formed early by my parents’ choices in recorded music: rock and roll was excluded, but not jazz or American musicals. Alvin and the Chipmunks crept in, too!

The distributors of broadcast and mechanically reproduced music exert tremendous power to form taste, their goal being financial profit. The huge economic organization of music distributors is predatory in the extreme. The vast majority of the distributed product is utterly unimaginative, fostering a worldwide appetite for generic styles directed toward the youth market. This product, marketed to appeal to the concerns of its audience, actually suppresses expression while sending a dumbed-down message of identity to listeners and potential purchasers. The infliction of this narrow musical choice on the public is masked by its seemingly limitless sources of distribution.

How to break the cycle? It cannot be broken, but now and again people do escape from its orbit. I’ve seen this happen often during my academic career. Recently I taught a one-day-a-week one-credit class to about a dozen freshmen at the University of Georgia who were not music majors. I had graduate piano students play Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt for the class.  They were entranced by the skills of the young pianists, and peppered them with questions.  After one class, a student, Elberta (alias), told me that despite the value that her metropolitan area high school placed on her athletic skills, she had longed to participate in music as well. Shortly thereafter my class was assigned to attend a University of Georgia Symphony Orchestra concert, and I saw Elberta with an athlete friend at intermission. Our orchestra is capable of performing works like the Mahler 5th and 6th symphonies, and since Elberta and friend had never been to a live symphony concert, they could not believe how good their fellow university students sounded. They asked, with innocent sincerity, what the purpose of the conductor in front of the orchestra was. This was enough to get us talking for the whole intermission, after which they enthusiastically returned to their seats!

It is never too late for people to expand their interests, and I think live concerts are the best way to do it. The earlier children are exposed to live music of quality, the better.  Opportunities to sing or learn an instrument should be available in every U.S. school system, public or private.  Until the stupidity of the mantra “No new taxes!” is recognized, I see little hope on the horizon.

Thank you for sharing your perspective. Your own efforts indicate that you are certainly doing your part to foster a broader range of musical interests among those within your sphere of influence.