“To play on a Steinway is always a wonderful experience.”
Eugene Istomin (b. 1925-2003) was especially renowned in his celebrated piano trio with Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose. He was also admired for his rich singing tone, and the seriousness with which he always placed his virtuosity at the service of the composer. Istomin hit the headlines at seventeen years old in 1943, when he won both the Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Award and the Leventritt Award, which respectively provided him debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
His first recording was the Bach D minor Keyboard Concerto with the Busch Chamber Players, with whom he toured in 1944, and in 1945 he made a spectacular Washington D.C. debut, playing an all-Chopin program with the National Symphony Orchestra on a barge on the Potomac. He first visited Europe in 1950, where his solo career subsequently encompassed six continents and more than 4,000 concerts.
Chamber music was one of Istomin's greatest loves. In 1950, he became the youngest musician to take part in Pablo Casals's festival in Prades, France. His first chamber recordings were with the great cellist and the violinist Alexander Schneider, in trios by Beethoven and Schubert. Istomin also got to know Stern and Rose in the 1950s. They played trios for pleasure until 1960, when they decided to make a concert tour. Their collaboration continued into the 1970s, and their recordings of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Mozart are counted as classics.
Istomin and his wife settled in Washington in 1980, where Eugene had become a founding artist of the Kennedy Center on its opening in 1971. In 1985, he became director of the University of Maryland piano festival for two years, renaming it after the pianist William Kapell, who had died in a plane crash in 1953.
In his final years, he toured 30 American cities, taking his own two Steinways and a piano tuner with him, declaring that this would help him "bring the standard of a New York or Paris concert to the most modest venue.” With a customized, climate-controlled van that carried two Steinway concert grand pianos, he traversed America to play in churches, high school auditoriums, armories and movie theaters. The tour was so well received that he repeated it annually into the 1990s.
He died of liver cancer at age 77 and is still regarded as one of the most respected American musicians of his generation.