In remembrance of an old-school piano teacher – SlippediscSlippedisc

norman lebrecht

January 01, 2023

In Memoriam: Yakov Gelfand, 1932 – 2022
by Lawrence Perelman

As the year draws to a close I’m posting this lengthy tribute to Yakov Gelfand, my childhood and lifelong piano teacher, who passed away in September just a couple months shy of his 90th birthday. I also send my deepest condolences to his family (Eugenia Gelfand) for their loss.

It’s likely that the name Yakov Gelfand means little to most of those reading this message. Yakov was, in my opinion, one of the greatest piano pedagogues, not least because he transformed my playing at the age of 10 from that of a wannabe pianist into a real pianist but for the hundreds upon hundreds of students who benefited from his brilliance.

Why is it important to me that you know about Yakov? It’s not so much about the man himself who was humble to such an extreme that it likely cost him an incredible professorial career far exceeding his home studio, the positions of assistant professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and piano professor at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. The reason you should know about Yakov is that he WAS music. He didn’t care about his career. All Yakov really cared about was music and that it be true to the composer’s intent. Music was his religion and the score was his scripture.

Yakov Gelfand was born in 1932 in Leningrad. His mother Chaya was an extremely gifted pianist and pedagogue who was Sergei Prokofiev’s contemporary placing right behind him in a piano concerto competition. Chaya, along with a young Yakov, were for a time the teachers of a very young Grigory Sokolov, one of today’s giants of the keyboard. When I mentioned Yakov to Sokolov in Salzburg several years ago, the pianistic giant fondly reminisced about them both.

[Yakov performing Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 5 at Walker Art Center in 1980]:

Yakov recalled for me his childhood when he and his family survived the Siege of Leningrad by boiling the flour off of wallpaper in order to find some sustenance in those very dark days.
Yakov would go onto graduate from the Leningrad Conservatory and become a professor there with colleagues who along with him would flee the Soviet Union when the gates opened for Soviet Jews to start life anew in the early 1970s. They would all establish themselves at premier institutions in Europe, Canada and America. Among those colleagues were Arkady Aronov of Manhattan School of Music, with whom I went onto to study; Vitaly Margulis of the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg and later UCLA, and Boris Lysenko of the University of Toronto and Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Yakov ended up part of the Soviet Jewish diaspora of St. Paul, Minnesota, to my unbelievable luck, just a mile away from our house. He wasn’t the most famous piano professor in the Twin Cities, but he had a reputation as someone who could take a child showing talent and shape them into a real musician. He often was known to use the quintessential Russian tactics to keep a student on their toes by telling me that I should have come to him when I was seven years old. This only made me work harder. He would also invite his mother to sit in on my lessons from time to time. She was incredibly intimidating and seemed to wear a perpetual scowl during these sessions. It was almost a form of “bad cop, bad cop” the two had devised to exert maximal pressure on a student. Years later I found out that she was quite fond of my playing and that this was a tactic employed to build my confidence.

[Brahms Third Piano Sonata performed at Macalester College in 1997]:

Yakov was the kind of teacher who would fill up a page with tiny scribbles and comments in red pencil. It was a veritable sea of notes. The B-flat minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a prime example where there are almost as many comments from Yakov as notation from Bach. That said, it did the trick and in many ways Yakov’s notes were like the directions of an expert driver on a roadmap. He knew exactly where he was going and leading his pupils.

Yakov would often say that there were three elements necessary to become a performer: Technique, Musicianship and Artistry. If you think about it there isn’t a truly great performer who doesn’t embody all three of these. Later in life I added a fourth element: Capacity. You can have the three elements of which Yakov spoke but without capacity you can’t survive the grueling labor required of any true performer.

Yakov deserves to be remembered and will forever have a place in my mind and heart. He suffered no fools at all when it came to musicians. He called most pianists – “idiots” – because of what he considered their boundless disregard for the score. This may be extreme but he had a point, especially when it came to recorded music influencing a young pianist’s studies. I went through a Horowitzian stage where I couldn’t get enough of his recordings and mimicked him without even knowing it. Yakov, not so subtly, told me to stop listening to recordings of music I was learning and to focus on the score. It wasn’t that he didn’t allow for the overly Romantic side of me to flourish as a young performer. We almost had shouting matches over disagreements on this point. However, what I began to understand was that if he didn’t reel in the expressiveness in my nature then on the concert stage it would derail me completely. Without structure there would be chaos. He was right.

[Yakov playing the 24 Chopin Preludes in 1984]:

My impresario roots were planted during my teens and although I applied to conservatories, I think I knew deep down that my obsession with classical music’s place in media would override whatever ambition I had for the stage. An example of this was in 1992 when the Schubert Club in St. Paul, where I had been a piano competition prizewinner, announced that 99-year-old Mieczysław Horszowski would be coming to town to give a recital. I excitedly went to Yakov and asked if he would be going to the concert. His retort was classic, “Absolutely, not! People only care about you if you’re 9 or 99, nothing in between.” Well, that may again be an extreme statement but not entirely off the mark. This was pre-Internet, and the press ate it up. It was a great story and one can debate whether or not Horszowski, who ended up canceling, was still up to the concert stage at that age. I think Yakov’s point was that there are so many musicians working day in and day out who receive absolutely no attention for, as a friend of mine says, “toiling in their vineyards.”

Yakov Gelfand leaves a musical legacy of hundreds of students from over four decades of teaching in the Twin Cities and many decades in Russia. He was a modest and meticulous man who spoke the crystalline English of someone who studied the language to perfection, just as he worked on legato and staccato.

Toward the end of his life he seemed as though he wanted to disappear and not bother anyone. His wife Lidia, who was in her own right a wonderful pianist who worked with dancers into her late 80s, was as modest as Yakov. One day their house was sold and they were gone. Phone disconnected. I searched in vain to find him but there was no trace. I knew of family in California but couldn’t remember his daughter’s name and didn’t dedicate enough time to thoroughly searching until it was too late. I kept thinking that Yakov would resurface and we would speak again. I never did hear his soft voice again which knew so much more than I’ll ever know about the true meaning of music.

[All-Chopin recital he gave in Minnesota in 1986]:

The last time I saw Yakov was at a wedding dinner my parents organized for Anna and me in Minnesota for family and friends who couldn’t make it to our wedding in Italy. Yakov and Lidia looked as modest as they had when I would occasionally drop by for a lesson on a piece giving me trouble in my post-pianistic years. They were incredibly happy for us and of course like any yenta, Yakov wanted to know when we would have children. This is a man who knew me from age 10 and saw me grow up. I looked at him the same way 30 years later, always with a sense of being judged like one does by teachers. I’ll never forget that when I would complain about a piano Yakov would say in Russian that “balls get in the way of a bad dancer.” My mom, a piano teacher herself (Celia Perelman), attended some of my lessons, and was horrified by these jokes and adages. But Yakov had a good point and indeed the fault was the pianist’s and not the piano’s no matter how inadequate the piano itself seemed. I would never complain about pianos going forward and had to find a way to adapt my technique to whatever limitations an instrument might have had.

Yakov’s approach to teaching was fascinating in that he was reluctant to assign the most popular pieces to his students. He had me learn Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 90 for my conservatory auditions instead of a warhorse like the Waldstein or Appassionata. This grated on me until I understood that this was to differentiate me since almost no one would think about Op. 90 and would thus stand out to the jury. The same went for much of my teenage repertoire which included Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Chopin’s F-Sharp Minor Polonaise, Bach’s E minor Partita and Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase which became my calling card. In retrospect the many pieces I studied with Yakov were part of his grand plan to make me a complete pianist capable of tackling any piece of music in the future. He never assigned scales and arpeggios. Instead he would utilize those patterns within the works themselves to shape and reshape my technique. I arrived with flat fingers and uneven pianist touch and left with a natural pianistic technique where I never complained of any pain at all in shoulders or forearms. So much of pianism can be forced and uncomfortable but with Yakov the aim was to move as little as possible. If ever there was anti-flair, it was Yakov.

It came full circle for me when I left Manhattan School of Music in 1996 and transferred to Macalester College where they kindly allowed for Yakov to be my official piano professor. We were reunited for another couple years of study where he helped me further my pianism although I’d given up the dream of a career.

A few months ago the world lost a grand master of the piano, someone who toiled in his vineyards to make sure that every student who passed through his doors would understand the importance of a composer’s intent written on the page and the need to observe those instructions. The world lost an example of someone who recognized the greatness of the composers to which we, in the “business” of music, owe our thanks and our livelihood for the creation of this “industry.” Sometimes we are so absorbed by the moment that we forget we can make a living from music because there were those who dedicated themselves selflessly to composing and instructing not even expecting to be royally compensated. The pedagogue can be the ultimate example of keeper of the flame for the composer. This was Yakov. He kept the flame alive and didn’t expect much and didn’t expect a thank you.

Yakov, thank you for changing the course of my pianism, my perspective on music and giving me all of the tools that make me appreciate what it means to be a pianist. I will use these for the rest of my life and my appreciation for music is greater for having known you, studied with you, and benefited from your technical, musical and artistic guidance.

Rest in Peace, Yakov.


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