Time in His Hands

Don’t mention retirement to Frank Glazer, or hackles will rise.

“I don’t know what retirement means,” says the pianist, who began at Bates as an artist in residence in 1980 — when he was 65. So yes, he’s 91, and no, retirement is not in the cards. “I’ve worked all my life to get to this point, where I like the sounds I hear,” Glazer says. “I can do things on the piano I couldn’t do before. Now is not the time to quit!”

Frank Glazer at home in Topsham, summer 2006.

Agreed. In an era whose pianists strive for mechanical precision and big sound, Glazer instead makes all else secondary to the music’s own message. “He has thought everything through and tried to get at the core of what the music is about. Everything he does is about that,” says fellow pianist James Parakilas, James L. Moody Jr. Family Professor of Performing Arts at Bates. “And he has a wonderful way of making a line sing.”

A Glazer concert on Oct. 20, one of several scheduled at Olin Arts Center Concert Hall this season, was something special. Two hours long with intermission and featuring Bach, Brahms, Schubert, and Chopin, it was an ambitious program, something you might hear from an ebullient 21-year-old ready to make his mark.
And so it was: in that October concert, Glazer celebrated the 70th anniversary of his New York debut by playing the very same program he offered at the renowned Town Hall on Oct. 20, 1936.

“Who does the 70th anniversary of something like that?” muses Duncan Cumming ’93, who studied with Glazer at Bates and remains a devoted friend. Between that triumphant Town Hall debut and its triumphant reprise, Glazer established a musical career that has soared by any objective measure: concerts played, countries visited, recordings made, works premiered.

Yet it’s also a career uniquely reflective of its times, and virtually any conversation with Glazer glitters with musical lore. He played vaudeville in his teens; had his own television show during the early 1950s, that medium’s golden age; and, with his wife, Ruth, co-founded a concert series in Maine during the state’s 1970s cultural renaissance. In the 1930s he studied with both Artur Schnabel, a leading interpreter of the Viennese masters, and with Arnold Schoenberg, whose atonal compositions were the antithesis of Viennese lyricism. A longtime champion of contemporary composers, Glazer nonetheless devoted his latest recording to the showy salon pieces that were in fashion during his youth.

“It’s all part of the same life to him, and what’s really valuable is that he gives us a sense of the continuity of musical life,” says Parakilas. It’s something particularly valuable for students, to whom, say, American composer Aaron Copland “seems as old as Bach,” Parakilas says. “Frank knew Aaron Copland. That allows him to put things in perspective.” The 1936 debut came about thanks to one Alfred Strelsin, a New York signage manufacturer and arts patron. He was a Glazer loyalist who helped send the pianist from his hometown, Milwaukee, to study in Berlin with Schnabel in 1932.

Strelsin, appointing himself Glazer’s manager, urged the New York debut on him. “If you don’t start by the time you’re 21, forget it,” Strelsin said, and Glazer, comfortably teaching piano in Cambridge, Mass., took that remark to mean that Strelsin wanted to see a little more career action for his patronage dollar. He agreed to play Town Hall, despite some doubts about his readiness. “It was a big program,” long and substantial, says Glazer. “I was out of my mind when I decided to do it.” While he knew the material well, had even played the program for Schnabel, he had never played it in public. (See sidebar for the program.) In fact, despite his many performances in other settings, Glazer had never performed a public recital, period.
He was so apprehensive as the concert drew near, he says, “I wanted to go back to Cambridge.”

In the event, all 1,500 seats were occupied as Glazer stepped into the Town Hall spotlight. The well-connected Strelsin had orchestrated much of the attendance, but the crowd also included dozens of friends from Milwaukee and several newspaper critics. Glazer had rearranged his program so that the newspaper people would hear his strongest piece before they left to make deadline. The change rattled him, and as he played the opener, a Bach suite, the tempo ran away from him. “You know when you run downhill, and you get giddy and you almost tumble over — I thought I might tumble over,” he says. “Had I fallen flat on my face and broken down in that, it would’ve been the end of the whole program.”

But musicianship got the better of nerves, and from the brink of a musician’s worst nightmare he proceeded, after intermission, to a musician’s dream: a moment of genuine inspiration on stage. A Schubert theme that he’d never quite mastered suddenly came to life under his hands. “I felt I was Schubert writing it down,” he says. “It was truly a revelation.” The press received the performance warmly; a New York Post writer managed to credit Glazer with both “the fury of an unleashed bull” and a “barrage of pianistic dynamite,” all in one sentence. Glazer took the program (restored to its proper order) to Boston and Milwaukee, winning rave reviews, and in 1939 went on to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the acclaimed Sergei Koussevitzky.

But if the Town Hall concert “started everything” for him professionally, as Glazer says, his career wouldn’t hit its steadiest stride for another decade. In between came World War II military service and, more to the point, Glazer’s effort to reinvent piano technique from square one, starting with the fundamentals of anatomy and seeking the most efficient way to create each sound in the pianist’s vocabulary.

It took him two years. But the result, a relaxed and economical style, is central not only to the sheer musicality of Glazer’s playing but, as Cumming says, “the secret to his being able to play at 91” while hand problems have forced younger pianists out of the game. (When Cumming, then in high school, started studying with Glazer, they spent the first year solely on technique. Now an assistant professor of music at the University of Albany, Cumming uses Glazer’s method with his own students.)

“It gets more amazing as Frank gets older,” says Parakilas, “because he has less brute force to put into his playing. Yet he can still play some of the toughest pieces in the repertory, because he has figured out how to get there without wasting any motion.”

Glazer came to Bates after 15 years of teaching at the Eastman School of Music. The link was Bernard Carpenter, then treasurer of Bates, who served as the first president of the Saco River Festival, the summer chamber series that the Glazers founded in Maine.

As artist in residence at Bates, Glazer gives recitals, serves as a resource for other faculty, and works with students — a choice few students. “If they have a need for me that they feel can’t be fulfilled any other way, then I’ll do it,” he says. In one concession to age, Glazer has curtailed his traveling, and Bates is now a prime performance venue for him. What he brings to the College, along with frequent performances, is a teaching style that blends intense musical consciousness with a rare generosity.

Cumming studied with Glazer for more than six years, wrote a dissertation about him, and they perform together occasionally. “I feel like I would have been inspired to do whatever he does, because he has such a love for what he does,” says Cumming.

“It really is that music has a power in his life that he wants to let other people in on,” agrees Parakilas. “And it’s the same whether they’re in the audience, or having a lesson, or in a class that he’s addressing. It’s always there.”