Conversation with Anthony di Bonaventura - by Leslie Gerber
We are grateful to Fanfare Magazine and writer Leslie Gerber for their generous permission to share an interview with Anthony di Bonaventura published in the May/June 1991 issue of Fanfare Magazine. Leslie Gerber (the interviewer) is a writer, poet and pianist. He has written articles on a range of music-related topics as well as interviewed many composers and musicians. More information about his work and blog can be found at lesliegerber.net. Fanfare is a bimonthly magazine (in print and online) that focusses on classical and jazz recorded music. It was founded by Joel Flegler, a former elementary school teacher, who has been the editor and publisher since 1977. This article, as well as reviews of di Bonaventura’s albums are available at the fanfarearchive.com
Leslie Gerber said this conversation occurred over the phone, like other interviews during this time. He typed transcripts during the conversations, making small edits prior to publication-this conversation is written as it occurred. A few minor notes [in brackets] have been added for clarification or updated information. Pictures (w/exception of first portrait) and embedded links (not available in 1991) have also been inserted for this version.
LG: How did you first get interested in music?
AD: My brothers and my sister, all older, were violinists. It all started very innocuously. My parents came from Italy. When my eldest brother was six they thought it would be nice to give him a little violin to see if he enjoyed playing it. When my sister came along, they thought it would be unfair not to give her the same chance. My other brother also got a violin.
By the time I came along, they desperately needed an accompanist, so I was sent to the piano. We had an upright and that was where we started. My sister was my first teacher. She sat me down when I was three.
She and I gave our first joint concert when I was four and she was nine. We played in Pittsburgh at a theater that had a live program along with movies. We played there for a week, short violin pieces. I really enjoyed it. I got my feet wet there and they haven't dried since.
My sister was a wonderful teacher. She set me up nicely. My brothers and sister took lessons in a small town in West Virginia. My parents had gone to this Italian enclave directly from Italy, and most people spoke Italian there. My mother was forced to learn English after my siblings' violin teacher said, “I can't teach these children anything more,“ a very honest thing for him to do. He lived in a larger town across the river in Ohio. He said, “If you want to have these children pursue music, and I think you should, I would take them to New York.”
So my parents moved the family to New York. My father was a barber. We were nicely situated and we didn't want to move, but he felt it a mission to do something about his four talented children.
We moved to New York, where my father knew one person, a friend of a relative. He managed to get us a small, dark, miserable, dingy apartment of two or three rooms. I was six when we moved. We went into this place, something we had never seen before, and we said, “Daddy, let's go home. We don't want to stay here.“ He said, “We came to do something and we're going to do it.“
This incredibly ingenuous approach to life was protected by God. My father didn't know where we were going to get this musical education.
We moved in on a late Sunday night. My father asked a young man who lived in the building if he knew of a music school. He said, “There's one ten or twelve blocks from here.“ He took us there the next morning. We all marched down there, the other three carrying their little violins.
I will always remember entering the school. The director was at the top of the stairs as we entered. He saw us coming in, a wonderful old distinguished gentleman with white hair who looked like the director of everything. He understood the situation instantly. Here is a father who thinks he has four geniuses and they all want scholarships, which was actually the case. My father didn't even have a job.
The chairman of the string department and various other people came. We each went in and did our stint, and we left that day with five scholarships, one brother getting one for both violin and piano. This was the Third Street Music Settlement, which is still in operation on 11th Street. That was where I got my basic music education, which was very good, stayed there the longest, about ten years, entirely on scholarship. The school had a social service -worker who helped my parents to get settled and steered my father towards a job. It was a remarkable institution.
LG: Where did you go from there?
AD: I knew that I wanted to study with on person only, Mme. Vengerova, By that time I was sixteen and quite a cocky sixteen, and felt that she was getting a great package and there was no doubt in my mind that she would take me. I went to play for her and she did accept me. But there was a catch, that slipped in wíthout knowing it. “I will take you as a student, but now you must play my way.” I didn't know what it meant, so I said I would do it.
Vengerova was one of the three major piano teachers of the time, along with Samaroff and Lhevinne. The other two took you as you were and made something out of that. Vengerova was insistent on a complete adherence to her approach to the piano. The only way you could get that was literally to start all over. That's what happened to me. I started all over at sixteen. It meant trying to forget everything I had been doing for thirteen years and to learn a completely different and diametrically opposed approach to the piano.
For two years, I was not allowed to touch a piece of music. I nearly went crazy. I had to work on her exercises. In the advanced stages, after the fourteenth month, I could play scales and arpeggios but no music. It was the most difficult time in my life, because of the deprivation I felt.
LG: What do you think of this now?
AD: She changed my life. If somebody had proposed to me beginning over and taking five years before I felt comfortable in the new approach, I would have said it was crazy, I don't need that. But when you ask me now, I say, what is five years? It was nothing in comparison to how I feel now. She changed my life physically at the piano and musically at the same time, without my realizing it was taking place. My ear was suddenly being trained the way it had never been trained before. The things I began looking for in music were completely different. She was the most profound influence on my life, a remarkable woman. It's sad to me now that one hears Vengerova stories. One of the reasons I got into teaching was to further her legacy, the approach to the piano she espoused. It seems to me that when people come to me after a concert now, they say, “I studied with Mme. Vengerova.“ I ask how long they studied. Almost invariably, the answer will be, “I only stayed for a year.“ They never got past the testing ground. Their memories of Vengerova are only those memories of this person who made life miserable for them. They never got through to the light at the end of the tunnel, where they would have seen the most profound musical experience that I've ever had. It surprised me that at the end was an incredible musician.
LG: Do you make your students give up playing music?
AD: It depends on the circumstances. Within the context of where I teach at Boston U. it is not always possible. I have private students who come and they insist on following this. I do everything possible to discourage them from this undertaking. I explain to them, you have no idea of what you are getting into. It is a complete psychological and emotional experience. When you think you are learning to play the piano, it has more to do with your formative approach to life.
If I can't dissuade them and they insist, they realize eventually what it is. It's a basic turning inward.
Literally, you discover how one finger plays one note. It's looking under a microscope. It's that detailed. For that to take place, one draws inward.
I had a lot of people who want to go through this. I have one man who was forty-five, and had spent his life trying to find a piano technique. He had gone to Japan to study Suzuki method. He came to me and said, “I have been to your concerts and I want to do that.“ I said, “This is how I got to where I am now. You don't want to go through that.“ He said, “I want to try it.“
He was a high-school music teacher, so the only thing he could do was work at the end of the day, spending a couple of hours on this approach. About three months later, he said, “I must stop.“ I said, “I understand.“ He said, “I don't think you do understand. As you know, this approach makes one completely delve into one's mind and heart and soul. I am finding out things about myself that I don't like. I don't want to find out any more.“ You have to be tough and accept whatever you find.
LG: I also know Jacob Lateiner, who studied with Vengerova.
AD: Jacob Lateiner had his own traumas and difficulties with Vengerova, just as everybody did. But he was with her for an extended period of time, and she influenced his approach to the piano too. When she first started to have me play music, she gave me some Czerny. I was so starved for music, I was thrilled to play it. Then she gave me other things to play and perform, and I would feel more and more comfortable. It's a continuous growth now. So many people approach the piano in different ways. I may be biased, but this seems to be the way that most people have the least difficulty.
After I'd been playing music again, she gave me Chopin's Etude, op. 25, no. 1. It sounded like a herd of elephants when I tried to play it. The ethereal sound was not there. I was struggling. I took it to a lesson, unfortunately, and I was extremely fearful. I was no longer cocky after those two years. I was in such awe of her I could hardly look at her. I played the Etude, or tried to play it, and she was very benign that day, luckily for me. She took pity. She said, “No, no, not like that. You mustn't play like this.“ She sat at the other piano, turned around, and played the Etude like I have never heard it before or since. It was an ethereal sound which she got from the piano. I looked at her and it seemed as though she were not even touching the keys, but waving two magic wands that produced this sound I had been striving for. She was doing it there. It floored me. Going home on the subway, it occurred to me, when was the last time she had been able to practice. Maybe twenty years before that.
LG: Your recording career started in 1950.
AD: I was graduating from Curtis, and I recorded the Prokofiev Eighth Sonata. I have difficulty remembering what happened last week, so I can't remember how this happened, except that Classic Editions asked me to record something. It turned out to be the first recording of the piece, which surprised me. I heard the record about twenty-five years ago and it was not too bad. I won't disown it.I accompanied a cellist, Edmund Kurtz. He was a friend of Vengerova. We toured the U.S. and Europe for a year, and we were scheduled to make some recordings. We did the Chopin and Rachmaninov sonatas, but they were never issued.
Columbia asked me to record a test for 78s. I did pieces by Chopin, the Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantaisie, and Miroirs of Ravel. It was my first understanding of how recordings were made. The A&R man came out with a look of shocked surprise on his face and he said, “It was wonderful. Let's do it again, and this time, stop after the first page.“ I said, “Why should I? Chopin didn't.“ He said, “it will be easier to put back together again.“ After trying that, I insisted on playing things straight through, but they were never issued. [E. Alan Silver of] Connoisseur Society came to me, and I said, “I know how recordings are made and I'm not interested.“ He said, “I will turn on the machine, you can play, and you will be the final judge of what we issue.“ I recorded twenty-three Scarlatti sonatas, and then I did the Debussy Etudes in the same way. The editing was almost nil.
Then came the Chopin B-Minor Sonata and Prokofiev Seventh, for Sine Qua Non, recorded the same way. They also issued a recital I gave at Jordan Hall of French music, early Debussy and Miroirs. None of those are now available because they are out of business. I like the Chopin and Prokofiev and I would like to see them out again [note: these were re-issued respectively on Chopin – Late Works, and Prokofiev – 10 pieces from Romeo and Juliet]
LG: How did you connect with Titanic?
AD: Somebody who knew my playing knew I had made these tapes almost three years ago, on my own. I decided that I wanted to put down things which I wanted to have. In August of 1988, I did the Rachmaninov Preludes, op. 32. Titanic said they would like to put them out.
I have a lot of things I want to do more of. I want to record some Mozart, some Beethoven, more Chopin. I want to do Rachmaninov transcriptions. I intend to sit down in front of microphones and get some of these down. Mark Aubort has been involved in recording all of these, with Joanna Nickrenz, who did my earliest Scarlatti.
AD: Wonderful. He is an old friend, and I've liked his music for a long time. He is a prince of a man as well. I saw him again about three years ago when I was playing in Warsaw, the Ligeti concerto, a five-movement piece which I also played here in St. Louis a year ago. We did it at Carnegie Hall too. When I played it in Warsaw, Lutosławski invited me for dinner. I had just heard the premiere of his concerto, and I asked to see the score. It looked wonderful. I oohed and aahed over the piece, and he said, “Would you care to play it?“ I said I would be delighted.
A year after that we gave the first performance of it in Holland with the Rotterdam orchestra, in Rotterdam and the Hague. Then he came here and we did it here. I was supposed to be in one concert and Ax [Emanuel] was supposed to play the other three, but he couldn't schedule it. A couple of weeks after that we did it in Vienna with the Polish Radio Orchestra. Somebody should record these two pieces. They were both remarkable.
This was the first time we had done anything professionally together. I was surprised by his ability as a conductor. He did very well, and conveyed his desires to the orchestra very well. In two places in the concerto he gave me suggestions, but that was it. It was very easy to work with him. You knew he could do his job so it gave the soloist freedom.
LG: Any unusual plans for the future?
AD: I play baseball every summer. There was a time when I had to make a serious choice between playing baseball and playing the piano, at fifteen or sixteen when I was ruining my fingers. I teach at Colby College during the summer, and anybody entering the course has to play baseball. We do serious work but also have a lot of fun. There is a Gilmore Keyboard Festival, taking place for the first time in May and June of 1991, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It is a combination of a festival, where a lot of people will give recitals and master classes, and conferences on the piano. They are looking for a young artist of major caliber who they will support to establish a career, but it is not a competition. They have a committee going to recitals or orchestral concerts to listen to them in performance. The person playing doesn't know they are there. They make a judgment on those performances. I will be giving a recital there, and a master class.
Since I have been playing so much contemporary music of late, I am now getting back more to the Classical era, learning pieces I should have played years ago. The joys of music are still supreme. Being able to play a Chopin Mazurka makes life worth living.
Anthony di Bonaventura
- Anthony di Bonaventura (Wikipedia article)
- Jeremy Eichler, Obituary: “Anthony di Bonaventura, pianist; taught at BU”, Boston Globe, November 18, 2012
- Laurel Homer, “From Child Prodigy to Master Teacher”, Bostonia 2013
- Richard Dyer, Interview: “For di Bonaventura, virtuosity not enough” Boston Globe, Oct. 8, 1978
- Alumni Spotlight, “Anthony di Bonaventura”, at Curtis Institute of Music
Producers and Engineers
- Michael Lander, Interview: “E. Alan Silver--The Connoisseurs’ Selection”, Audio July 1988
- Michael Fremer, Interview: “Elite Recordings: A Conversation with Freelance Recording Engineer Veteran Marc Aubort”, Analog Planet, April 30, 2010
- Gary Gottlieb interview with Marc Aubort featured in Course Technology Cengage technical reference: “How Does It Sound Now? Legendary Engineers and Vintage Gear”.
Madame Isabelle Vengerova
- Curtis Archives, “Bernstein the pianist and the Pedagogue”
- The Vengerova System of Piano Playing By Robert D. Schick (on Google Books)
Composers who Anthony di Bonaventura has collaborated with:
- Luciano Berio (Italy) - composed “Points on a Curve to Find” for Anthony di Bonaventura
- Vincent Persichetti (America) – di Bonaventura premiered Persichetti’s concerto for piano, orchestra, op. 90
- György Ligeti (Romania) – wrote his piano concerto for di Bonaventura and his brother, Mario. Additional articles include: Will Crutchfield “A piano concerto brings Ligeti back to the Orchestra”, New York Times, Jan. 14, 1990. Article about Ligeti’s concerto written for Anthony di Bonaventura and his brother, Mario. Additional information about this composition appears in “Footnotes”, Winter 2009 Northwestern University Library newsletter.
- Milko Kelemen (Croatia) – di Bonaventura premiered his composition Mirabilia with the Zagreb Philharmonic.
- Alberto Ginastera (Argentina) – wrote his 1st and 2nd piano sonatas for di Bonaventura.
- Witold Lutosławski (Poland) – di Bonaventura performed his concerto for piano and orchestra at the Hague, Boston, and
Family members (siblings):
- Mario di Bonaventura (conductor) – collection at Northwestern University.
- Sam di Bonaventura (writer and educator) – collection at Mason University.
Selected music videos of di Bonaventura’s recordings, presented with images for the musical scores (many more here)