Pianist Gary Graffman: Left-Handed Miracles

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Concert Program

Artist: Gary Graffman

Venue: Music@Menlo Festival

Music:

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Gary Graffman takes a bow at the Music@Menlo Festival.

After a full two-hour recital, playing with his left hand only, Gary Graffman takes a bow at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., in part of the Music@Menlo Festival. Tristan Cook hide caption

itoggle caption Tristan Cook
Gary Graffman in concert at the 2008 Music@Menlo Festival in California. He lost the use of his right hand in 1979, but that hasn't kept the 79-year-old pianist from giving recitals of repertoire for the left hand only.

Gary Graffman in concert at the 2008 Music@Menlo Festival in California. He lost the use of his right hand in 1979, but that hasn't kept the 79-year-old pianist from giving recitals of repertoire for the left hand only. Tristan Cook/ hide caption

itoggle caption Tristan Cook/

The only sound was the thrumming crickets. Then Gary Graffman began playing a gentle Prelude by Federico Mompou.

Graffman is a venerable American pianist who turns 80 this year. For the past two hours, in a concert at the 2008 Music@Menlo Festival in suburban San Francisco, he'd given a remarkable performance using only his left hand.

Graffman sprained a finger on his right hand in 1979. He changed fingerings to avoid the wounded digit, but that only twisted his hand further. Before long, his ring finger and pinkie were curling up on their own, and for almost 30 years, Graffman has been unable to use his right hand at the piano.

Since then, he's had a tremendous career as a teacher — Lang Lang is among his students — and as president of one of the world's premier music schools, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

And every now and then, Graffman plays a solo recital of pieces written for left hand alone. At Menlo, he played a massive program of taxing but beautiful music.

As I sat in one of the most enthusiastic concert crowds I've been a part of this year, I couldn't help but think of Jim Abbott.

Abbott was born without a right hand, but pitched in the major leagues from 1989 to 1999. He would cradle a glove on his right arm while throwing, then quickly transfer the glove to his pitching hand. If a ball was hit to him, he'd catch it, squeeze the glove between his right arm and torso, pick the ball out with his left hand and throw it again.

The first time you saw Abbott pitch, you couldn't help but focus on his one-handedness: "How is he doing that? How long before he drops the glove?" But as the game wore on, your focus would shift: "His fastball has some jump today. Nice change of speeds. Great break on the curve!"

I had the same experience watching Gary Graffman. As the recital opened, I marveled at the novelty: "Can he really play all those notes? That fast? With one hand? What will his right hand do?"

But as the evening wore on, my focus was drawn in by the power and depth of Graffman's musicianship. The Reinecke Sonata was transparent and beautifully phrased. The Blumenfeld was lush. The Reger miniatures were little acrobatic gems, full of lighthearted leaps up and down the keyboard, and an impossible (yes, I saw it, but I still say impossible) three-part fugue for just the left hand.

So what does Graffman's right hand do during a two-hour concert of music for left hand alone? For most of the evening, it sat quietly in his lap. Occasionally it twitched, seeming to want to get into the act. The thumb might trace small circles in the air, as if conducting the left hand's performance. And, of course, Graffman has the most relaxed page-turns of any pianist in the business. While his left hand was flying up and down the keyboard, his right hand would casually come to his mouth for a quick friction-providing lick, then flick the page across and spend a moment smoothing the music flat.

At the end of every piece, the audience of several hundred would wait for the music to die away into complete silence before erupting into raucous cheering. And, at the end of the evening, Graffman played a pair of encores. The second was the lovely Prelude No. 6 by Federico Mompou.

As it came to a serene conclusion with a final chord, several hundred listeners held their breath as one, savoring the resonance around St. Mark's Episcopal Church. As the chord died away, all that could be heard, for a still moment, was the thrum of the crickets outside — until Graffman stood for a final bow. Then the audience stood to thank him, cheering and stomping.

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