It is an arresting and uncommon portrait of a concert pianist, one of the more distinguished examples of musical primogeniture living, eschewing the more conventional tuxedo-pomade axis: mustachioed, open-shirted, sunglasses, a certain style of upmarket hippie standing in front of a graffiti’d wall, presaging decades of the rock-and-roll-album-cover spirit of a Brooklyn–based new-music performer. This is the essence of Steinway Artist Peter Serkin, one of our premiere pianists, one who has done more than so many to forecast the role of a “classical musician” in a more contemporary, post-classical world. In a preface to a rare interview some years ago, Richard Scheinin holds: “Peter Serkin’s longtime fans may remember him as somewhat rebellious and unconventional — a goateed pianist in a hippie tunic, performing in the classical quartet known as Tashi.” That was in the 1970s. Peter Serkin brought a whiff of the counterculture — of deep Elvis — to what was otherwise once considered bourgeois music, injecting the proceedings with a soupçon of ersatz psychedelia. In short, he paved the way.
In today’s world where playing new music, even mixing genres, is hardly considered an apostasy — consider the careers of such leading lights as Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, or Renee Fleming, all of whom regularly commission and perform new works — but on the complex Planet 1960s, especially when hailing from such a lineage and at the Curtis Institute, it might not have been the easiest path. Yet we are better for it: due to Serkin’s enthusiasms, it is fair to say the world is that much different. Of course, this is true for any artist responsible for ushering in the creation of so many new works, but Serkin is also one of a handful who oversaw, in the latter part of history’s most complex century, a necessary sloughing off of the forced formality of the conventional concert hall. “I’ve always been very interested in music that’s being written today,” said Serkin, in Scheinin’s interview, “and in recent music. That was true even as a child, when that was somewhat discouraged. But it was just a component in me somehow — inquisitive. And so when I get older that doesn’t diminish. That’s still there. Now I think I’m more inclined to be open to all kinds of music that I might have dismissed as a younger snob. I don’t feel as snobbish anymore, and I welcome the chance to learn music, even if it’s not the greatest music.”
Peter Serkin brought a whiff of the counterculture to what was otherwise once considered bourgeois music.
Serkin springs from one of the more distinguished lineages in a lineage-obsessed field. His grandfather was violinist and sometime composer Adolf Busch; his father was Rudolf Serkin (who also doubled as one of young Peter’s first teachers). Peter Serkin entered the prestigious Curtis Institute at age eleven, and within a year he was making debuts at the Marlboro Music Festival, soloing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and playing at Carnegie Hall, all before he was a teenager. His technique was solid; his career pointed out. But rather than treading the more conventional path of, say, Alfred Brendel (with no disrespect to that powerful eminence gris), Serkin turned his mind and hands to the music of his time — and what a time it was! It is unsurprising that this charismatic, offbeat pianist is best known for doing new music of his era or the one immediately preceding it, as his recorded catalogue can attest: the Schoenberg Piano Concerto; the two concertos of Bartok; music of Wolpe (an arresting case for this too-little-known eccentric master), Peter Lieberson, Alexander Goeher, Charles Wuronien, and Tōru Takemitsu all feature in his extensive output.
In the 1970s he and a number of other luminaries broke free from the soloist-or-nothing evinced by so many mid-century conservatories (Curtis chief among them) and formed what can only be described as a classical music supergroup called Tashi, which included Serkin, violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. This instrumentation is not an accident; it is the scoring of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s epoch-making Quartet for the End of Time. Without putting too fine a point on it, as the composer wrote the piece in an internment camp during the Second World War, it has since become a symbol of the uniting, pan-cultural need for freedom: in 1973 Tashi honored this by ridding themselves of many confining notions (both musical and not), thereby unshackling the stage for subsequent generations. All four of those musicians went on to legendary careers in different quarters, but each of them made — separately, collectively — the case for doing things off the beaten track and, by raising the occasional critical or concert-subscribing eyebrow, drawing attention to the vitality and necessity of the work by virtue of their group’s very off-the-beaten-track-ness. “In the years since,” wrote Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times of their 2008 reunion, “they have all had major careers and maintained their individual commitments to contemporary music. As a fellow member of their generation, who heard Tashi in its heyday, I have to say that they all looked great. Gone are the dashikis, ponytails and love beads. That was then.” And, yes, it was then but it is also, even in 2008, even today, very now; the issues of formality versus informality or the larger cultural importance of classical music face no recrudescence because they never disappeared, despite the better efforts of Serkin and company. They had all grown up, but their collective intent played equally.
Like many at his height, Serkin gives back not only as an artist but as a teacher.
And yet, the Serkin legacy — thankfully still an in-progress project — is not just the introduction of the new or the abandoning of formality, but rather the performance of this repertoire with rare musicality (not, sadly, always the case amongst the group of dedicated souls who perform it exclusively) because it is, like the pianist himself, of an important lineage. So while we can thrill to his recordings of those less-than-repertoire composers — those souls that musicians now refer to, not without cheek, as “new-music famous” — we also have a legacy of interpretation of Big Important Works from the Great Western Canon that stand against anyone’s: we have his incisive performance of Beethoven’s daunting Diabelli Variations; his probing Goldberg Variations (which pay Bach obviously-deserved homage but are also often appropriately rough around the edges); and his masterful tours through Mozart concertos and, even more tantalizingly, his chamber music. We get the chance to hear him as a collaborative partner non pareil accompanying the much-missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Brahms, Handel, and Debussy. All this is to say Serkin has never played new music at the expense of the old, and as one casts relief onto the other, he has found a way to make a case for the whole canon.
Like many at his height, he gives back not only as an artist but as a teacher. “Peter Serkin,” says pianist Simone Dinnerstein, one of his star students at Juilliard, “is an extremely thoughtful and searching musician, and he brought those qualities to his teaching. The lessons were joint explorations into the score, all about asking questions as opposed to giving answers. He really prepared me for becoming an independent person and making my own musical decisions, and I will always be grateful to him for that.” Dinnerstein herself has trod Serkin’s path to a certain extent, mixing music of living composers with those whose work they admire: Dinnerstein plays Bach masterfully and commissioned Philip Glass to compose a concerto not only built for her sound but also to be played alongside a Bach concerto. A Peter-Serkin-esque move.
“Of course,” says Serkin, “as I get older I realize that the music that once was very new for me is no longer new at all.” Very true; much of what he donned the non-concert garb to play with Tashi or the work he continues to champion as a soloist is no longer either stylistically or temporally new. The bulk of the composers whose music psychonaut Serkin performed — Messiaen, Wolpe, Takemitsu, Berio, Lieberson — have since passed, leaving closed canons with which his open mind will continue to wrestle. But there are others, those who are young, twenty-first-century artists who have chosen the mantle of these twentieth-century minds at work and opted to take the mantle or not. Serkin’s interest remains vivid though perhaps his purview leans to the older “new” music, a right he has earned unquestionably. “I’m interested,” he says, referring to the new crop of composers who tend more often than not to reside in the borough of Brooklyn, “but because I don’t live in New York, I don’t hear as much of it anymore, except what happens to be on the radio. I’m always interested, but I haven’t yet found anyone to whom I would attach the kind of importance I would to Wourinen, for instance, or Takemitsu, when he was alive. But that’s just because of my limitations, I’m sure. But my antennae are out.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.