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1. Playing for the President

My father told me the following story when I was young; I hope my retelling is reasonably accurate. In May 2016, I receved a copy of the concert program, shown here, from Jan. 16, 1936.

He had been engaged by renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to perform at the white House during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency (year and program yet to be determined). They played to an assembled audience including the President, but comprising a great majority who were evidently not necessarily great enthusiasts of the repertoire. Hence, when they finished playing the first piece, there was gentle, polite applause. They played another piece; the same response came again. At the end of their program, the applause was no greater.

Now, Piatigorsky, my father told me, was a vain man, and was incensed at this reception. After taking their final bows, they had a walk down a long corridor to their dressing room, with the cellist stalking fast and  indignantly. A young man called after them, "Mr. Piatigorsky! Mr. Piatigorsky!" The cellist stopped and whirled around. A young aide had run up to them.

"What do you want?" snapped Piatigorsky.

"They would like an encore," replied the trembling messenger.

"No!" shot back the cellist, frightening the aide still further.

"B-b-but Mr. Piatigorsky," stammered the poor aide. "It's the P-P-President's personal wish."

And that is how Piatigorsky and Ulanowsky played an encore at the White House.

2. Treasuring Schubert

The following begins with an anecdote related to me by accompanist Alex Farkas.

During the summer he studied with my father, he and a singer at one point chose to prepare Im Frühling. When they were to perform it for the class, my father said he would demonstrate it first. He sat down to play, and, just before putting his hands to the keyboard, he looked up at Alex and said, "This song is a sacred trust." (See Remembrances.)

The song became a favorite of mine many years ago, and I finally learned the accompaniment myself. As in so many cases, I wished I could hear how Dad had played it. Alas, for some unfathomable reason, there appeared to be no extant recording. Therefore, in 2006, I was elated to find that it had been on the program for tenor James Schwabacher's NY Town Hall debut, from which recital several other songs had been recorded to his CD, If Music Be the Food of Love (Cambria). Given the tenor's light and high voice, I thought it might be a supreme performance.

It took about a year before I was able to obtain a CD from the original tapes. Unfortunately, the performance was not the best for either musician, some tightness in the tenor's voice evidently leading to a rather quick tempo and too little of the rubato and relaxed phrasing for which this song is made. Nonetheless, one hears the shades of the kind of voicing and phrasing expected from my father's playing, "all the more amazing, " commented Farkas after hearing the recording, "in that the l.h. jumps at that speed are quite difficult."


3. Gentleman's Wisdom

My wife and I had the wonderful privilege in 1987 to dine with the great Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger so that I could ask him about his work with my father. Unfortunately, I was all too ignorant at the time to ask many intelligent questions. I asked about reports that the recording engineers had changed the levels in the recording of Brahms's Magelone Songs (LP, Epic BC 1371); he confirmed but did not elaborate. (As one of his sons who was there with him explained, he was "a man of few words.") I also asked about how he and my father had rehearsed together, to which he replied, "Just enough so that we understood each other."

The following year, I had the opportunity to interview at length a former singing student and very close friend of Dad's. She had several anecdotes about Haefliger and Dad's concerts in the New York area when they were performing Schubert's Schöne Müllerin (which she said was glorious—but never recorded), and had turned pages for rehearsals as well. She told me that after one such rehearsal, as she and Dad had parted with Haefliger for the day, she had expressed shock at Dad's firm demands of the singer.

"You spoke to him like a student," she exclaimed.

"That's all right," replied Dad. "He knows he needs it."

Dad was certainly the senior musician of the two, eleven years older with significantly more years of professional life and acclaim. In any case, the following excerpt from Studs Terkel's interview (full recording on the Audio page) took place about the same time and shows Ulanowsky's gentlemanly professional response, even in response to what had been apparently Haefliger's own admission:

Terkel:     Ernst Haefliger, the very excellent tenor, whom you accompanied Friday night…said something about you as he was rehearsing, that you were advising him in some of the pieces, [that] the composition was so great in themselves [sic], he did not have to impose too much. Would you mind expanding on that a bit—too much of his own—his artistry was there, but the piece itself—

Ulanowsky:    Well, I think that— First of all, I would like to correct it: I'm not advising; that would be presumptuous; but when it comes to the close collaboration on Lieder, then you feel you have to unburden your own conscience, and you want to reach the greatest possible agreement between the two performers.

Every piece of music, of vocal music  or any other field, has its own gravitational field, where the emotions and other aesthetic elements are defined and limited. It is our interest, first, to establish the limits of this field and then try to reach the utmost in expression and delivery within these limits. When somebody has more to give than this field suggests, then there is always the temptation to give more than the score demands; you want lavish all that you have on your audience or on this particular piece of music, and every now and then it so happens that a piece is not elastic enough to carry all this extra weight of expression or whatever it happens to be; and then I feel that I should tell the singer that, from my listener's point of view, this might be too much of a good thing. And a singer, who is both the instrument and the performer on this instrument, sometimes doesn’t have that kind of distance to gauge the effect that he creates with his singing. And therefore I feel it's up to the accompanist to raise his voice every now and then when he sees this.

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White House Program page 1
Program courtesy of FDR Libray Archives
White House program page 2

White House program page 3