SCOTT SIMON, host:
Fifty years ago, Daniel Pollack was a graduate student in piano studies at Vienna's prestigious Hochschule fur Musik. And one day, he noticed a sign on the bulletin board about a piano competition in Moscow. He decided to enter.
(Soundbite of song, "Nocturne Number 20 in C Sharp Minor")
SIMON: This is a recording of his performance of the Chopin "Nocturne Number 20 in C Sharp Minor" at that competition. It was the first annual International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, at the height of the Cold War, in an unthawed Moscow into which Americans rarely ventured.
(Soundbite of song, "Nocturne Number 20 in C sharp minor")
SIMON: Another American, Van Cliburn, won first place, helping to make both the award and himself famous. But Daniel Pollack won a prize, too. He was invited to tour all over the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. He also became the first American to record an album for the Soviet Melodya label.
Daniel Pollack, who's just recorded a new album called "Colors," joins us from his home in Los Angeles.
Mr. Pollack, thank you so much for being with us.
Professor DANIEL POLLACK (Music, Thornton School of Music; Pianist): I'm delighted to talk with you today.
SIMON: What a story, and it's hard to know where to begin. But let's begin 50 years ago. What possessed you to enter the competition?
Prof. POLLACK: Well, the professor I was with brought me a brochure and it was all in German. And it was the first time they were going to have an international competition in Moscow in the name of Tchaikovsky. And I thought, why not?
And so he rattled off the program that I'm supposed to do, and this was at the end of December, so I had barely two months to prepare.
Prof. POLLACK: And normally, for international competitions, one takes a year, if not, longer to put all the pieces together. But I went ahead and learned all the repertoire and only found out in Moscow when I got there that I had the wrong program.
SIMON: Well, tell us that story. As I've read, you were at dinner that first night.
Prof. POLLACK: Yeah, I came into Moscow. Remember, it's the height of the Cold War and I'm traveling by train through Czechoslovakia then Poland then through the Soviet Union.
Prof. POLLACK: And it was - you could say kind of scary.
Prof. POLLACK: But when I realized when I came - and I was talking to one of the contestants and they said, well, I'm playing Schumann and Mozart and Chopin. And I said - and he said, what are you doing? And I said, oh, Miaskovsky and Metner and Shostakovich. And all he said, well, why are you doing all these Soviet, Russian pieces. And I said, that's what was required. And he said, no. You only have to have one of them, including Prokofiev sonata.
Prof. POLLACK: So I offered to withdraw.
SIMON: For those of us who've never been to an international music competition, is this the equivalent of the recurrent dream some of us have that we show up for the big test and we aren't wearing our pants?
Prof. POLLACK: You could say that, yes. But anyhow, Shostakovich was alerted who was the chairman and...
SIMON: This is Dmitri Shostakovich.
Prof. POLLACK: Yes. And they decided they would let me go ahead and compete as it was. And I made it through the finals. And, of course, the excitement in Moscow at that time was unbelievable.
SIMON: Help us understand what it was like for a couple of Americans, you and Van Cliburn, to win a music competition in the Soviet Union. Was it as shocking to Russians as, let's say, Yuri Gagarin getting shot into space was just a few years later for Americans?
Prof. POLLACK: Yes. It was a terrible shock for them because they thought that one of theirs was going to be a winner. In fact, Sviatoslav Richter, the very famous pianist who was on the jury, said this is not a competition for everybody here but basically between two Americans, which was a shocking statement for a jury member to make, in fact, during the time of the competition.
SIMON: Everybody had to play one piece from their country of origin.
Prof. POLLACK: That's correct.
SIMON: And you played...
Prof. POLLACK: I played the premiere of the Barber Piano Sonata, which was I would say 8 years old at that time. It was premiered in the United States by Vladimir Horowitz. And, of course, this was something the Russian audiences never knew about.
SIMON: I wonder if we could hear a little of it.
Prof. POLLACK: I can play a tiny bit of it, yes.
(Soundbite of song, "Barber's Piano Sonata")
SIMON: Now, you and Van Cliburn, as I understand it, had both studied with the same legendary teacher.
Prof. POLLACK: Yeah, Madame Rosina Lhevinne. We were both students of hers at the Juilliard School.
SIMON: Now, she'd been - was it the Moscow Conservatory for years?
Prof. POLLACK: She herself was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. She married then Josef Lhevinne. They were great pianists. And they were friends with Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Scriabin. And you think of an era that is amazing and it's not that far removed when you actually consider it.
In fact, Russians later called me their musical grandchild. And they allowed me to go on tour and perform after the competition.
Prof. POLLACK: And record for Melodya several recordings.
SIMON: What was it like to spend time and then travel in the old Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the late '50s?
Prof. POLLACK: Well, it wasn't easy because a lot of my tours, especially in winter, were by train, train trips that take up 24 hours and 30 hours. And several - I come off the train and I barely have time to go to the hotel. When it's time for me to give the concert, I have to rush to the hall. Sometimes, I couldn't even get to the hall because it was already packed with people. And I just had to come out and play and they would clap in rhythm and throw flowers and write me notes of what pieces they would like me to play in. Very loving and very affectionate at the time when it was most, most difficult I realized for them.
SIMON: I have to ask living as you do, there are so many Russian immigrants in Los Angeles and you get recognized and treated like you're George Clooney.
Prof. POLLACK: I get recognized. Then, if I say my name, everyone knows me from that time in Russia. It's still amazing to me. I'll come in and they'll say, you're the one who played the "Barber Sonata," or you're the one who played the "Prokofiev 7," and it's like I'm a household name to them.
(Soundbite of song, "Prokofiev: Sonata Number 7 - Precipitato")
SIMON: Mr. Pollack, when you're a judge at one of these international competitions, what do you listen for? What do you hear in a piece of music or in a performance?
Prof. POLLACK: That's a very good question. I myself on a jury, feeling very much for the contestant because I know I was there myself.
Prof. POLLACK: I'm looking for a contestant whose feeling in the music goes beyond the music that's in the score. Many are playing the notes and don't say anything to me. Or stylistically, I'd like to know that Chopin sounds like Chopin and not somebody else. And the architecture of the piece, many just sort of meander through the piece and I don't know really where they're going, and I don't know really what they're saying. So what crosses the footlight and projects its emotion to me is what I'm listening for.
(Soundbite of song, "Schumann: Carnaval - Preambule")
SIMON: Mr. Pollack, what a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Prof. POLLACK: My pleasure.
SIMON: You can hear more of Daniel Pollack's music and that of many other artists in our new music Web site, npr.org/music.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.