Saturday, July 26, 2014


Justin was five when we read The Hobbit.  During most of one rainy weekend, I sat in my chair in the corner and read while he tore around the living room jumping off the furniture, working off the energy that he couldn't release outside.

I kept saying, "Look, Justin, we don't have to read this." I would fold up the book with the idea of letting him play freely -- but the next thing I knew he was back with this big, heavy book in his five-year-old hands:  "Wread it, Mummy."  So I read, until the jumping around reached a level that couldn't be compatible with listening -- could it?

Finally I said, "Justin, what did I just read?"  He responded with a capable precis of the last paragraph, concluding on a rising inflection with the phrase -- an important one in context -- "those excellent PONIES!"

All right.  He really can run around like a Tasmanian devil and listen at the same time.  I kept reading, ignoring the wild rumpus at my feet, until we finished the book.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


I turned twenty-two that summer; Laurie was twenty-six.  Our lives were in chaos.  A bright spot for both of us was making our way to a back room up many stairs at M.Steinert's on Tremont Street -- Laurie worked there and had access at all hours -- where he would take his place at the piano that Sviatoslav Richter and John Browning asked for when they came to town, and play for me whatever he was working on at the time. One of these pieces was Prokofiev's Toccata, Opus 11, one of Vladimir Horowitz's encores and a barn burner by any standard. When Laurie was first looking at the music and thinking about learning it, someone he worked with said with a smirk, "You can't play that."  Having, as he gleefully put it in later life, "no brains," he ground his teeth and settled down to learning the Toccata, just to prove that he could.

It begins with repeated sixteenth-notes on D, establishing a driving rhythm that, except for one short lyrical section, continues throughout the piece.  It's percussive, chromatic, dissonant, exciting, and great fun to watch.  Laurie said the Toccata is in sonata allegro form, like the first movement of a symphony.  I'll take his word for it.  Laurie was big on structure; I've never been able to hear these things, or figure them out.  What I'm aware of structurally in the Toccata is the ingenious way the themes develop and fit together.

Toward the end of the development section, it must be, starting from the top and bottom of the keyboard respectively, the performer's hands work their way towards each other in contrary motion.  The pattern in the left hand looks to me like thinly disguised parallel fifths; the right hand plays chromatic chords bristling with accidentals.  At that point -- measure 77, in the middle of page  27 -- to be sure of positioning his hands correctly, Laurie would hesitate ever so slightly.  Any interruption in the relentless sixteenth-note pulse is conspicuous; but I always liked the effect of that slight hesitation, which gives the listener a split-nanosecond to wonder what on earth is coming next.

Before the coda, the momentum relaxes -- think of the train slowing down at the beginning of The Music Man -- into repeated D's that echo the introduction.  Then, at the original tempo, chromatic chords begin climbing the keyboard, louder and faster as they go, until the main theme explodes in frantic octaves at the top, twice as fast as anything that's happened yet.  With a dive into one of Prokofiev's signature glissandos, the piece finishes fortissimo on a double open octave on D.

Laurie and I stayed in touch for the twenty-odd years between the spring and summer of the back room at Steinert's and our marriage in 1986 but weren't always aware of each other's day-to-day issues.  I didn't know that the Toccata had become part of his repertoire.  I was delighted when he announced his intention of dusting it off and playing it at a concert at our church.  Hearing it in slow motion over many weeks, I came to appreciate the interplay of the different themes, even though I still didn't grasp the overall structure.

Discussing the concert with the choir director, Laurie told her what he was going to play and asked if she knew the piece. "Oh, yes," she said.  Either she was thinking of a different work, or that was one of these absent-minded remarks people make. When she heard the Toccata at the concert, she was grafityingly surprised and impressed.  At her request he repeated it a few years later.  I think that was the concert that he left saying,
"Well, that's about as well as I can play."

     As Laurie got older and less sure of himself, his playing took on a heavy-handed do-or-die quality.  Usually this is a mistake -- sometimes a fatal one.  With the Toccata, it works. Laurie once played me a recording by a young pianist who rippled through the piece, making it sound almost easy.  That struck me as wrong.  I missed the fire and drama of Laurie's rather desperate rendition.  He began his relationship with the Toccata trying to prove something, and struggled for four decades with this powerful and rather angry piece that one biographer has characterized as "nasty."

I have kept three or four pieces of Laurie's piano music, including his 11 x 17 enlargement of the Toccata.  For most people who knew Laurie, his signature piece would be the Gershwin Songbook (which I have also kept), the second Prelude, or Rhapsody in Blue.  When I remember Laurie at the keyboard, I think of the Toccata.