Monday, January 16, 2012

Pianist takes a walk on the Wild side

An under-appreciated pianist got a little love from the Charlotte Symphony's audience over the weekend.

No, I don't mean Joyce Yang, the young pianist who was onstage. Yang, a winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn piano contest, won plenty of appreciation on Friday. The dash and seductiveness she gave Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini" won her a quicker-than-usual standing ovation.

Yang responded with an encore: Gershwin's "The Man I Love." So sumptuous was the piano arrangement that it might also have been devised by Rachmaninoff. But it was actually a creation of Earl Wild, a virtuoso who died two years ago this month at age 94.

If ever a pianist qualified as indomitable, Wild did. He went to work as a staff pianist at NBC in the 1930s, played what reputedly was the first piano recital on TV in 1939, and continued giving concerts past his 90th birthday. When he was in his 80s -- an age when many pianists are doing well just to keep up the repertoire they've always played -- Wild was still tackling demanding works for his first time. One example: Samuel Barber's thunderous Sonata for Piano, which Wild went on to record.

Wild was built to last. He was a tall, big-boned guy who handled the keyboard with ease. Whether that was natural or hard-earned, I don't know. But I'd bet that no repetitive-stress injury ever got near him.

Wild's effortless technique and big sound made him right at home with Liszt and Rachmaninoff blockbusters. He also had an affinity for the virtuoso vehicles of less famous pianist-composers. Alongside all that, he was devoted to Gershwin. He dished up "The Man I Love" and other songs for piano -- sonorous, glittering arrangements he recorded and published. He even created a half-hour piano extravaganza utilizing all the big numbers from "Porgy and Bess."

When Wild was in his prime, the composers whose music enabled him to shine -- Liszt and company -- didn't get a lot of respect in some quarters of the music world. So, even though he had a steady career, Wild didn't get the kind of attention he probably deserved. But Yang and other pianists are playing Wild's arrangements -- which also include lush piano versions of Rachmaninoff songs. So today's audiences still have a chance to go Wild.