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Shura Cherkassky

photo: Clive Barda

Shura Cherkassky was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1911 and emigrated to the U.S. as a child. He first studied piano with his mother and later with Josef Hofmann at the Curtis Institute. A superb artist, he capitalized on his tutelage with Hofmann to become known as an interpreter of the "old school" who never played a piece the same way twice. His specialty was the Romantic repertoire -- Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff -- and he played it all his life in a career that took him around the world for decades. He died in London in 1995.

The following interview was a backgrounder for a feature article that ran in the Pasadena Star-News as an advance story for the pianist's upcoming recital at Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena. In print, it reads almost inept or unprofessional. For the first several minutes, we couldn't seem to get the interview off the ground because he couldn't hear me, we weren't on the same wavelength, he kept going on and on about the weather, whatever. But it didn't matter because Cherkassky was such a character. It was comical and quite fun to speak with him. He talked about anything off the top of his head and had a langorous, weary way of drawing out vowels that let him complain and at the same time, seem charmingly cute. His former wife didn't think so; she divorced him, he told another interviewer, partly because she had thought she was marrying an artist but got a metronome instead. It was great fun talking with Cherkassky and of all the interviews I've done over the years, it's the one I recall most fondly -- even though we didn't cover anything of substance. I spoke with Shura Cherkassky on November 14, 1987.

SC: Could you speak a bit louder? Itís very dull the way it (sounds).

DB: Oh, okay.

SC: Thatís better.

DB: Howís the weather back there, by the way?

SC: It's all riiight. Fine. It's not too cooold, noooo.

DB: That's good; I thought they had a blizzard back there in New York.

CS: But you know, I tell you, that's good for interviews. Iím a bit egotistic and it's selfish of me, but when Iím working, I like bad weather.

DB: You like bad weather?

CS: Yes, becaaause I don't think I'm missing anything in life. Because this life is a bit of a slavery. You devote yourself to music, and if it's wonderful outside, you say, "Oh my God, I wish I went out to friends outside, to go for a walk or do something." If it's bad weather, so I say then I'm not missing anything. It's very selfish of me, but that's the way I aaaam. I give you complete permission to put that in the paper.

DB: Oh, absolutely! Sounds wonderful.

CS: (Laughs loudly). People say, "Isnít it terrible, bad weather?" And I say, "I'm deliiighted." I just hope it doesn't keep audience away from concert if it's raining. I like bad weather. That's why when I live in London, people say - you know, because I love the heat and I like to go to the beaches and get tropical - they say, "How can you live in a place like London?" I say, "Well, London suits me for work and I love London.Ē I wouldn't live anywhere else. But I like to go away. London is ideal for working.

DB: They had some pretty terrible winds back there recently.

CS: No ways, no! It snows very rarely in London, but it's kind of misty and I really love it. Well now, you keep on asking me.

DB: Okay. Let me see. What is it about -

CS: See if you can speak a bit loud. Iím not deeeeaf or anything. It just sounds kind of distant. Yeah.

DB: I guess itís the connection. May I ask you this? Whatís the best thing about the musicianís life?

CS: Well, I canít answer you that, frankly, because every musician is different -

DB: Well, I mean your life -

CS: - every musician is a different person. I mean, it's the way you arrange your own life. You know, I don't quite understand what you like me to -

DB: Well, I suppose, what you like about being a musician as opposed to something else.

CS: Yeahhhh. Well, of course it is my life and I love to do what I'm doing.

DB: Okay, well maybe it's a bad question. You have such a number of different likes. Let me ask you another kind of a strange question.

CS: Yeah.

DB: If you made a list of the things that you like and the things that you didn't like, which list would be longer?

CS: What, you mean the things that I like and I didnít like. What do you mean? In the way of music?

DB: Anything. Everything.

CS: People say they get tired traveling. They get tiiiired. I never get tired. I get tired if something doesn't go right. Like if I wait and somebody misses an appointment - say, you didnít meet me. Or if thereís a piano in the room and I have to wait. Things like that make me teeeer-ribly tired. Or some boring people. I mean, if everything is arranged meticulously to the utmost detail, then I don't get tired. But when something goes wrong and I have to wait - or something doesnít happen. Iím very impatient I don't like waiting for anything - not even in a restaurant. That's why Iíd rather eat in my room - room service - because while Iím waiting for the waiter to come, I can do other things. I don't just sit there. I could practice. I could dress. So Iím a very impatient person. Very difficult to live with. The only patience I have is my work. There, I have abnormal patience.

DB: I wonder why that is. They say artistic people are people who have tremendous patience.

CS: Well, there I am. I'm different. Everybody's different - tremendous patience for their work, yes. Oh, yeeeees! Otherwise you couldn't accomplish. You certainly canít learn to play pieces in a hurry. Noooo! But then I'm talking apart from music.

DB: Well, people and things. What sorts of people interest you?

CS: Generally, I like people who don't label me as a musician. They think just because I'm a musician and play all over the world and famous and all that that I have no interest in anything else. That booores me and I like to get away from people like that who just talk about music and think Iím not interested in anything else in life. I like particularly anything to do geography.

DB: Geography.

CS: Yeah, I like to discover out-of-the-way places for vacation, for holiday. Like the other year, I went to an out-of-away-place that nobody goes to and I found it. Madagascar. And then this time for Christmas-New Year, Iím gonna spend it in Malaysia. I like out-of-the-way places.

DB: What is it about those sorts of places that you like or what is it about travel that like?

CS: Well, I like to fly. At the airport, there I have patience if the plane is delayed. I don't mind waiting because it's very exciting. I like to see the people come out and go in and all that. To me, that's fascinating.

DB: People travel for all kinds of reasons, either to see other cultures or antiquity or just other people.

CS: No, well I like just to see different people, yeeees. I'm not terribly interested - I shouldn't say this - I'm not terribly interested archeologically or anything that happened many years ago. I like to see something that happens now. The same way itís like when I read books or when I go to the movies or when I go to the theater. I like to see something that can actually happen in this present day of 1987. Not fantasy. I want to see something that really can happen, not fantasy or illusions or history. That's the way I am, and I don't like to look back. Now so many people who heard me before, they come backstage, ďOh helloooo! I heard you many years ago. Do you remember my daughter? Well, now she's married and my nephew plays and I used to playÖĒ You know, that kind of conversation that I hear all the time, and I probably know what they're going to say before they say it by their expressions. Naturally, you can't be rude to people. You have to be polite. "Oh yes, how nice!" You know, that's boring. But I suppose you have to accept that. It's part of the career, isn't it?

DB: I suppose you do have to -

CS: Do you think Iím speaking all right on the phone?

DB: You sound as if youíre here in town. I guess itís a one-way problem. You donít hear me quite so well, but youíre coming across fine.

CS: Yeah, but you know, I like to trip I love to travel. Iím going Japan, by the way. In February I have a tour. The Japanese manager is in New York now. They all took pictures in front of my poster at Carnegie Hall. And then a tiny crowd collected in the street - 57th Street - and asked, ďWho is that?Ē That's kind of fund. And then in December, I told you Iím going to Malaysia for a holiday but before that, Iím going to Bangkok to give a recital and have holiday there, too. So I love to do things a like that.

DB: When youíre on tour, do you really have a chance to get around and see things or do you have to reserve that for your holidays?

CS: Very, very, very, very little. Veeeery little. Sometimes I have two hours free, and I hope that somebody to driving around to.

DB: That's terrible!

CS: Yeah, thereís very little time leeeft. Now for instance, I'm coming to Pasadena. You know Pasadena.

DB: Oh, sure.

CS: I used to stay at the Sheraton-Huntington, isnít it?

DB: Huntington-Sheraton. I believe that's closed now.

CS: That's pulled down, so Iím gonna stay at some other hotel. And generally, I always have a piano and my room like I have it right here. But I don't suppose I'll have it for one day in Pasadena, so I just hope the managers will - I donít know what time I'm arriving - hope he'll accommodating with practicing. To me, thatís very important. For one day, it's not worth having a piano in the room.

DB: How often do you practice? Do you try to practice every day for several hours?

CS: Oh yeeees. Certainly. And then the next day, from Pasadena, I'm flying to Utah - Provo. It's the second city after Salt Lake City. And then to Europe.

DB: And then essentially back home. Your residence is in London, right?

CS: Well yes, I mean goodness gracious; I sort of make it a base. Iím probably more out than Iím in.

DB: I see. In your travels, do you tour in places that you say, ďA-ha! This is where I'd like to come and spend my holidays.Ē

CS: Yes, some places I like come back. Now Bangkok, Thailand. I neeever tire of it. It's the most fascinating place, not for music.

DB: The people.

CS: The people are kind of gentle and they laugh with you. It's especially Bangkok more than even other cities in the Orient.

DB: When youíre traveling, when you're on your holidays, do you travel alone or do you travel with some entourage?

CS: Nooooo, well it depends. You mean when I travel for vacation? Oh no, then I either travel alone or sometimes with friends, sometimes somebody who also likes that kind of traveling.

DB: Are your travels meticulously planned or do you like to have an element of chance when you travel? Leave things unplanned and just venture around.

CS: It has to be planned, but I used to like sort of going to the airport and sitting there with baggage, not knowing where Iím going and then suddenly buy a ticket. I used just do that.

DB: Oh, yeah? When did you do that sort of thing?

CS: A few years ago, even in Athens when I was sitting in the airport without any destination. And the passport ready and travelers checks, all that and then suddenly combined a ticket. I love that kind of adventure. I don't do that so much now.

DB: Well, it's difficult to do. It's very tiring, for one thing.

CS: No, it isn't tiring.

DB: Well, I did something similar earlier this year. It takes a lot out of you.

CS: Well, did you go to Europe?

DB: Actually, I went Europe, Asia and Africa.

CS: Oh, well you like to travel like I do.

DB: Well, I'm a novice at it.

CS: You went to Asia?

DB: Well, what it is is I went to Egypt, Israel, Turkey and Greece.

CS: That's just the Middle East. Then you didn't go to the Far East. And where did you go in Africa?

DB: Well in Africa, it was strictly Egypt. I would like to have gone to Tunisia, actually.

CS: Oh, I love Egypt.

DB: Turkey was the best country for me.

CS: Well, Istanbul is very exotic and sort of Europe and Asia together and I've been to Ankara, too.

DB: What's your favorite country or can you say?

CS: Well I love to live in London, but for a vacation I think Thailand.

DB: How many times have you been there?

CS: Oh, every year.

DB: Every year?!

CS: Every year I go there. Sometimes I go there twice a year.

DB: Wow!

CS: But I don't like to go there in the summer because it's monsoon time. It rains. But now it's going to be ideal. And I love Greece, too.

DB: Mmm yeah, it's wonderful!

CS: Greece, youíve been there.

DB: Yeah, not enough time there.

CS: Greece is one and Italy, too. Italy is wonderful but that's very European and slightly too sophisticated. I think in Greece its kind of less - I won't call primitive. It's more simple.

DB: It's funny that people who travel around, they have a special affinity for -

CS: Certain people.

DB: - certain people. I know who has a real affinity for the people in Tunisia in Somalia.

CS: In where?

DB: Tunisia.

CS: Oh, I've been to Tunisia. To Tunis and Monastir and there is Hammam-Lif. Yeah, I've been to those places. Itís veeery nice. I don't think I'd like to go there too often. The people are little bit more gentle than they are in Morocco or Algeria.

DB: When it comes to meeting people and traveling, do you have communication problems or how do get about?

CS: You mean languages?

DB: Yeah.

CS: Well, I speak English, Russian, German and French. And very, very slight smattering of Spanish.

DB: So you never have a problem communicating with people.

CS: No, no. Nowadays, almost everyone talks English. And I enjoyed very much - I played in Russia in May. Have you been there?

DB: No, I've never been to the Soviet Union. Did you go back to Odessa, by any chance?

CS: Yes. I had two recitals in Odessa, and it was very thrilling.

DB: I guess you don't remember what Odessa was like.

CS: Oh, yes I do. Because the first 11 years of my life - I was born in Odessa - I never left Odessa until I was 11 years old. My parents and I migrated to America - to Baltimore, Maryland, to start with. So I never left Odessa, but oh I remember thoroughly the main street - Pushkin Street and the beautiful opera house there, which people really don't know unless they've been there. They always speak of Bolshoi in Moscow. The Odessa Opera House - itís a little bit smaller but more beautiful. Have you heard of it?

DB: No. Not really.

CS: Itís really fantastic.

DB: So you found a lot of things unchanged?

CS: Yeah, but I didn't have time to go there this time. But it's really thrilling to be in your birthplace.

DB: I imagine it would be, interacting with the people there. The Ambassador people wouldn't forgive me if I didn't ask you a musical question. Can you tell me something about what goes through your mind when you're performing?

CS: Nothing.

DB: Nothing?

CS: I just try to enjoy it. You mean?

DB: Do think about the audience or do you think about the music?

CS: You mean whoís sitting in the 17th row or whoís sitting in the fourth row. I may be, subconsciously, but not really. No, I really don't think about anything. I just try to drown myself in what I'm doing and just try to play the best that I can. I don't think there's any calculating.

DB: Youíre touted as one of the last great post-Romantics, whatever that means. Perhaps I might ask you about the difference in styles - of, say, modern styles and the way things were played way back when.

CS: Well, you know, as I said in other interviews, those same composers the way they interpreted and what they wanted - Iím sure that if they would live up to now, they probably would interpret those compositions differently. So I don't believe in being teeerribly strict. Well, to a certain extent, yeeees.

DB: I guess a couple of months ago, I heard a recording of the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 that was recorded by Rachmaninoff on Edison cylinder.

CS: (As if just recalling) Oh yes, I know he used to record for Edison.

DB: And toward the end, he broke into this grotesque cadenza that he had obviously either written or improvised on the spot.

CS: Rachmaninoff Concerto?

DB: No, no. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.

CS: Oh Liszt. Which one?

DB: No. 2.

CS: Did Rachmaninoff play that?

DB: Yeah.

CS: I'm sure he must have. Oh I would love to hear that! Hofmann used to play it.

DB: Hofmann used to play it?

CS: Yeah.

DB: I was saying that Rachmaninoff broke into this cadenza that was total Rachmaninoff, just really grotesque. You don't hear that sort of thing done today.

CS: Noooo.

DB: Did they do that sort of thing frequently in those days?

CS: I suppose they did. I think they did, yeah.

DB: Have we become, as listeners, stuffy in our tastes? Intolerant?

CS: I won't say conservative but yeah, even Hoffman - he could add a bass note on the bottom or arpeggio here and there just spontaneously, you know, kind of flamboyant. They don't do that anymore. One would be criticized for doing that. And in fact I don't think it goes too well nowadays.

DB: What would be your own inclination?

CS: Oh to play more or less strictly, I mean as far as notes go, but I mean give your own feeling and interpretation.

DB: In the way that you play, do you sometimes get criticized for -

CS: Well, I mean I'm known to play maybe on the spur the moment, I play differently. Maybe one evening, one that way and another evening, that way. Sometimes even in the concertos. But concertos, I don't change so often because that antagonizes conductors, and they say, ďWhy díyou do it that way?" and ďDonít do that.Ē I try, but I prefer to try to do that even at the annoyance of some people, I prefer to do that than be boring. Tell me, it is for a newspaper?

DB: Yes, it is for a newspaper.

CS: Which one?

DB: The Star-News in Pasadena.

CS: Oh well, that's a Pasadena paper. There'll be an article when?

DB: I suspect it will come out Tuesday or Wednesday.

CS: With a picture?

DB: Iíll try to get a picture from the Ambassador people.

CS: Oh, Iím sure you can get picture from the Harold Shaw office. They probably have it. That's with Mr. Shilkret, is it? How do you say it?

DB: Shilkret. Mr. Wayne Shilkret. (Shilkret was artistic director of Ambassador Auditorium).

CS: I'm so glad I'm playing in Pasadena because they probably didn't tell you. I can tell you. It's not a secret. I never in my life canceled concerts. Never. Never. Just never. But I did Ambassador, Pasadena a few years ago because there was some kind of a misunderstanding that I was supposed to go to Pasadena from Europe just for one concert and then my manager said you can't go just for one concert to cross the ocean all way to the West Coast of the United States. So they said if you can arrange anywhere - nothing was arranged. It was another manager, not Harold Shaw. No, I donít like to mention who. And that the last moment, I did not go, and there was somebody who substituted for me. I think a Spanish pianist.

DB: Oh (Santiago) Rodriguez, perhaps?

CS: Yeeeees, that's right. So then they said, oh they were very angry with me. It was really my fault entirely because I gave them no warning. They said, ďTheyíll never engage you again. There furious that you with you.Ē So Iím doubly glad that I'm playing there. I suppose you can mention that. I don't know if you should not. (Laughs).

DB: Well, youíve played there before, haven't you? Many times.

CS: Oh yeeees, two or three times! But that particular event was about three years ago.

DB: But youíve played there since, no?

CS: No, no, not since. No, no.

DB: Oh, I see.

CS: I played before about two or three times. But not since. I thought they would not engage me, so I'm very glad.

DB: It seems like they're very happy to have you.

CS: Yeah.

DB: Well, we look forward to hearing you.

CS: Well, I hope I spoke well.

DB: Oh, yeah. Perfectly! Just fine. Very interesting.

CS: It will probably be a different sort of an interview, yeah.

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