Growing up in Quincy, Illinois, James B. Stewart recalls being in junior high in the early ’60s when the Chicago Symphony came to town. “All I can remember,” says Stewart, “is that I never really knew when to clap. A piece would end and people wouldn’t clap, which upset me and bothered me.” But Stewart still remembers what was on the program. “They played Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and I was riveted by it — swept up in the music. Eventually I bought a recording of it and played it to death. I had taken piano lessons, had lapsed, and asked to take them up again. I made pretty rapid progress. I had the inflated idea that if I wanted to, I could be a great pianist.”
In college, Stewart took a course in piano where he attempted to tackle Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Josef Haydn. “I had read that Rubinstein had lashed himself to the piano eight hours a day and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to follow the Rubinstein Regimen for a month.’
I played the Variations eight hours a day. I didn’t have great instruction and didn’t know how to practice, so simply playing eight hours a day was not leading to any great breakthroughs. At the end of the month, I did play the first four variations in a little group recital. And that was the end of that. I was so relieved — it was like coming off a diet.”
Stewart never became a great pianist; he became a great journalist instead. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for his coverage in the Wall Street Journal of the insider-trading scandal of the late ’80s, which led to a best-selling book, Den of Thieves. With several books to his credit and more in the works, Stewart remains a busy writer, also contributing regularly to The New Yorker and Smart Money. Stewart says he sees parallels between the credit boom and the junk-bond boom and that today we may be looking at an “exponential den of thieves.” He feels that compared to the current economic climate, the upheaval of the late ’80s now seems relatively contained. “At least there was a linear narrative you could get your hands on,” says the writer. “It wasn’t global and never spilled over.
Insider’s guide. Stewart’s 1992 non-fiction blockbuster Den of Thieves recounted the criminal conduct of Wall Street arbitrager Ivan Boesky and junk bond king Michael Milken.
Thirty years after that college recital, and many books and financial upturns and downturns later, Stewart returned to the piano. And now, when he’s in New York at his Chelsea apartment, he practices an hour every day. For Stewart, the piano offers a break from his busy writing schedule akin to meditation. “I don’t have the kind of personality that could go into the lotus position, tune out the world and repeat some mantra. I’ve tried,” he admits. “But playing the piano has a similar effect. It requires a lot of concentration, so when you work on it — if you’re going to have any success at all — it drives everything else out of your mind. For me it has that same refreshing quality that I imagine people who meditate get: it cleanses the brain cells.”
The height of Stewart’s amateur piano career came in 2007 when he played a concerto for the now defunct New York City Lawyers’ Orchestra, an experience the pianist terms “an immense amount of work.” Now, his performances come in the form of occasional but regular recitals that he hosts in his apartment. On this particular Thursday evening in March, Stewart is throwing a French salon, with wine and works by Debussy, Duparc and Fauré. Stewart performs solo piano and accompanies his partner, the baritone Benjamin Weil, in chansons for an audience of a dozen, myself included. It makes for a relaxing evening.
Stewart tells me before his performance that he went to hear Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall the week before. “Usually, I’m inspired by these players,” he says, “but after seeing him play I just felt like coming home and never playing the piano again. Why bother when he can blaze through those Chopin Etudes? — all of which I’ve played at one point or another. But then I snapped out of it. When you compare yourself to the great performers who come through New York all the time you feel completely inadequate, but there are a lot of people looking for amateur musicians — and it’s nice when you meet some string players who are thrilled that you can actually play the Fauré piano quartet.” He travels to Wellesley, Massachusetts in the summer to play chamber music.
‘I couldn’t say that while sitting at the piano I’ve ever had some inspiration about how to start a story. On the contrary, I’m deliberately not thinking about stories or books.’
“People ask me, ‘Why do you play the piano?’ And I think, well, why do I have to have an answer? Does everything have to survive some sort of cost-benefit analysis?” says Stewart, slipping into his financial lexicon. “But if I had to give an answer, I’d say it’s like exercise or anything: it complements the other thinking and work that I do. I couldn’t say that while sitting at the piano I’ve ever had some inspiration about how to start a story,” he says, laughing. “On the contrary, I’m deliberately not thinking about stories or books. I ultimately just enjoy it. I think it enriches my life or I wouldn’t do it. And it really has enhanced my appreciation of listening as well. Even at the Kissin concert I found I was much more focused in for the music I had already played than the music I had never heard before.
“It is very hard to play the piano,” the writer concedes. “I know a lot of people do it and get discouraged. But so many things in life that are rewarding are difficult so I don’t mind that, particularly. In a way that makes it more satisfying.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.