At the time that I was finishing my undergraduate studies and beginning to look around for a place to do graduate work, the name Leonard Stein was offered repeatedly in reply to my almost desperate inquiries about with whom I might study the 20th century piano repertoire. I was completing four stimulating years as the student of John Perry, a distinguished pianist/teacher whose specialties were Beethoven and Schubert, and whose advocacy of works by conservative university-based composers was an important part of his pianistic activities. My curiosity about more adventurous composers was growing, though, and the only reaction from fellow piano students to my wild enthusiasm for the bizarre sounds of Boulez, Cage, Wolff, and Lucier was uncomprehending silence. During those years, I played Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and the piano part of Pierrot Lunaire, Ruggles‘s Evocations, and Stockhausen‘s KlavierstŸck IX, and became good friends with the composition and philosophy students.
Those were the days when Leonard was one of just a few pianists in the United States who played the most radical, avant-garde repertoire, music that we knew only from recordings and hard-to-come-by scores, and he counted many avant-garde composers among his friends and musical comrades. Of course, he also played what was, in those days, still “new music”—Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg—and we listened, in the light of his professional and personal relationship with Schoenberg, with heightened attention and pleasure.
Eventually, I had to make a choice between Yale, which would have been a continuation of my work on the traditional repertoire, and the recently formed California Institute of the Arts, with its reputation for innovation and crazy experimentation (not always just in things musical). So when I arrived in California in 1975 to become Leonard’s student at Cal Arts I jumped immediately, with his friendly, and sometimes amused, guidance, into the cold, refreshing waters of Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen. Right away, he conscripted me for duty in ensemble pieces by Carter, Ives, Berio, and Earle Brown, and it was just what I’d been looking for.
I left my first lessons with Leonard, however, with a feeling of puzzlement, coming as I did from a world where lessons were filled with detailed criticism of each bar of music, more practicing and comparing of recordings with my own efforts and those of other students, followed by additional lessons on those same measures of music. Sessions with Leonard were more often my playing through of the piece, his correcting of the score’s misprints and my own naïve oversight of crucial musical elements (and wrong notes…) and then a wide-ranging conversation about the composer of the work, whom he, of course, knew. This led into stories about some of the other pianists he’d heard play the piece and about young composers he liked and recommendations of new pieces I should bring in the next week. It took me some time to recognize the new situation I was in.
It was during our weekly sessions at the piano that Leonard told me of the violent frenzy with which Boulez played his own piano music, and the connection between the seemingly sparse and ascetic music of Webern and the world of Schubert and Brahms. When I asked about Cage and Feldman, Leonard introduced me to Earle Brown, who happened to be at Cal Arts that year, telling me to take his course on experimental music and painting. After I’d worried out loud one day about how to continue my involvement in new music when I finished at Cal Arts, Leonard advised me to go to Italy to work with Frederic Rzewski.
Leonard’s seeming disinterest in teaching the traditional piano lesson stemmed not from a paucity of ideas about playing the pieces students brought to him but rather, I think, from his sense of his own life as a musician. The variety of his work was astonishing, and how interesting that he was not really known as “a pianist”, although he’d made many distinguished recordings at the keyboard. If you asked at random a number of people who’d encountered him or known him, what they knew him as, you’d get a kaleidoscope of answers: composer’s assistant, writer, editor, theorist, musicologist, lecturer, conductor, teacher, mentor and, yes, pianist. He was a wonderful example of a true musician, clarifying that music is a life, not a career.
Mentioning certain topics or asking a presumably innocent question of Leonard could bring forth a flow of reminiscences and impressions. He was particularly enthusiastic about Bertolt Brecht‘s poetry, and amused by the writer’s prisoner-like appearance. I had a curiosity about Hanns Eisler, having just played the 2nd Sonata and the Op. 3 pieces (recommended to me, of course, by Leonard), and he enjoyed describing Eisler’s comical presence and good-natured character, which endeared the composer to many during his years in the United States. I’d often wondered about Leonard’s political leanings during the first decade that I knew him, as he expressed quite a few times an antipathy towards “political” music (especially pieces by Rzewski and Christian Wolff), and was unhappy that I would spend my time learning and playing such things. The composer/pianist Yuji Takahashi, who’d been invited by Leonard to play Xenakis‘ Eonta in Los Angeles (it must have been the 1960s), told me that he felt Leonard had become much more open-minded as he aged. I witnessed this when, after a concert in 2001, where I’d played Rzewski’s hour-long The People United Will Never Be Defeated, his only criticism was an amused, “It’s way too long!”
It was, in fact, Leonard who set an example of broadmindedness for us—in my case, introducing me to Eisler, Hauer, Reger, Busoni, guiding me through Schoenberg, Webern, Sessions, Stockhausen, Boulez, and reminding me, when I grew frustrated, thinking that I’d explored the farthest reaches of 20th century music, that “all music is new music”. He asked me many times, in a lightly mocking tone, why I refused to even consider certain composers or types of music and, ultimately, why I worried so much about everything.
I left Cal Arts and Los Angeles after two years and, following a period of doctoral study at the University of Colorado in Boulder, eventually settled with my wife, the composer Hyo-shin Na, in San Francisco. I took up a position on the piano faculty at Stanford and saw Leonard less frequently, although I kept in touch, until the advent of email, by writing letters and making the occasional phone call. During my first years in San Francisco, I traveled to New York, where I was involved in performances and recordings of pieces by Stravinsky and Schoenberg with Robert Craft. Craft, of course, had been the driving force behind Columbia’s complete Webern recordings made in the 1950s, and Leonard had been the pianist in the chamber works, and solo Variations, and had accompanied Marni Nixon in the songs. Craft still held Leonard in the highest esteem and spoke to me fondly of their work together. In 1989, I found myself feeling like a strange sort of shadow trailing far behind Leonard, when I played the harpsichord solo in a performance Craft conducted of Carter’s Double Concerto at Alice Tully Hall; he’d led the same piece in Los Angeles in 1962 with Leonard as the harpsichordist.
Leonard visited San Francisco a number of times in the 1990s, in association with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, for whom I was, at the time, one of the pianists. During the first of these visits, in 1993, he gave a remarkable performance (by memory, even though he was 77 at the time!) of Schoenberg’s Suite Op.25, along with the violin and piano Phantasy. A few years later, he returned to participate in a public discussion of Stockhausen’s music prior to a performance of Mantra. The appearance of “performers” on such panels in San Francisco is still exceedingly rare, composers being given pride of place almost exclusively. As such, Leonard’s presence was a testament not only to the breadth of his activities, but also to the respect afforded him as a pianist/intellectual (a rare creature). Leonard once told me that he had, in fact, “discussed” this issue of the accepted hierarchy of composer/performer with Schoenberg. When he proposed the equality and, even, superiority of the (in this case) pianist to the composer, in the light of the pianist’s versatility, experience with a wider range of music than the composer, and constant exposure to the real physical problems of making music by playing an instrument, Schoenberg simply wouldn’t hear of it, and the conversation went no further.
Leonard came to Stanford in May 2001 to talk to the students and other members of the community, many of whom were there because they remembered a visit he’d made decades earlier. (Sitting in the audience was Jon Nakamatsu, winner of the 1997 Van Cliburn Piano Competition who, as a teenager growing up in the Bay Area, had flown regularly to Los Angeles for theory lessons with Leonard.) At the conclusion of Leonard’s talk, he and I played the two-piano version of Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony, a piece he’d played countless times with numerous pianists. During two afternoons of rehearsal I enjoyed the wild, impetuous, highly dramatic feel of the music while playing at Leonard’s tempos, following his shifts of speed and dynamics, sometimes barely making it to the next page turn. This was animated, good-natured, high-spirited music making, completely devoid of any concern for perfectly simultaneous attacks and asphyxiating, unyieldingly steady tempi.
After the performance, a local musician who’d been in the audience approached me and asked what it was like to work with Leonard, and about the nature of our musical and intellectual interaction during rehearsals and what he imagined must have been a need to integrate our, at times, disparate visions of the piece. What could I say to such a question? “I just do what he tells me to do!”
Of the many projects undertaken by Leonard in the years I knew him, possibly the one with the most far-reaching repercussions is the annual series of piano recitals called Piano Spheres. Launched in 1994, with four younger Los Angeles pianists who had close associations with him, the series is a counterweight to the myriad piano recitals comprised of endless re-playings of the same narrow repertoire. Its focus is on not-so-frequently heard music, mostly of the 20th century and including a wide range of recently written pieces, some of them commissioned by Piano Spheres. For his own part in the series, Leonard gave recitals that included, among many other works, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, the Boulez 3rd Sonata, the solo works of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, the Eisler 3rd Sonata and Op. 3 pieces, and the fourth movement of Birtwistle‘s Harrison’s Clocks, which was dedicated to him. In addition to this almost overwhelming abundance of music to be heard by Los Angeles audiences, Leonard has left a legacy of continuing challenge to the pianists involved in the series: I can only imagine the resourcefulness and amount of pure hard work it must take to present a new group of programs each year.
Thinking about Leonard, I have the impression of a highly complex personality with a great many intertwined character strands, many quite unusual and rare. Certainly, there was his generosity in sharing ideas, enthusiasms, friendship. Was his lyrical big-toned playing of Bach a manifestation of this generosity? There was his tendency to focus his feelings about a complex of issues into a concise, pithy remark, and I remember how much I enjoyed his occasional short, dryly humorous letters with their compact, elegant handwriting. Standing out most in my mind now, though, is a day in the spring of 2001 when our conversation came round to David Tudor, and Leonard remarked about how much he admired Tudor’s seeming disdain for celebrity and fame, and about how this quality is so rare in the world of musicians.
A week after Leonard’s 2001 Stanford visit, Hyo-shin and I flew to Vienna and our paths crossed there (he’d just played the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony with a young Austrian pianist). The three of us spent a week going to lectures, rehearsals, concerts, museums, and restaurants and, even though he was 40 years older than either of us, it became clear after a few days that we simply couldn’t keep up with him. One evening, as we sat together over a late dinner following a recital in which I’d played Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, I asked him for his thoughts on my playing of the piece. The performance had gone reasonably well until the very last note of the final, sixth piece which, when I tried to play it at the pppp dynamic indicated by the composer, simply didn’t sound. After letting me contemplate the rather heavy silence created by my request, he smiled—”You might try to play the last note a little louder….”