From Carnegie to Korvette's

The big break back in 1925 that launched Vladimir Horowitz to stardom came the way every young pianist envisions it.
By Judy Kogan

The big break back in 1925 that launched Vladimir Horowitz to stardom came the way every young pianist envisions it. As told by the pianist Abraham Chasins. Horowitz had spent the afternoon walking in the famous zoo in Hamburg, Germany, and returned back to his hotel in early evening when it began to snow. Near the entrance to his hotel he caught sight of the local concert manager who upon seeing Horowitz-started gesturing excitedly and informed the pianist that a woman pianist who was to play a concerto that night had fainted during a rehearsal and would be unable to play. He asked Horowitz to substitute.

The huge concert was about to begin in an hour. After a quick shave and a glass of milk, Horowitz dashed off for the concert hall, and entered just as the conductor. Eugen Pabst, was finishing the symphony that was to precede the concerto. Parts to the Tschaikovsky B flat piano concerto had been rushed from the library and placed on the musician's stands.

The conductor was introduced to the young Horowitz, still a relatively obscure musician, and he opened his score and said:

"Look you, I conduct like this. This is my opening tempo. Here, I take it this way, then I take it that way. (It is customary procedure for the soloist to dictate the tempi and nuances.) "Just watch my stick, and nothing terrible will happen," he went on.

It only took three or four of the opening crashing chords to humble Pabst. Supposedly, Pabst spun around in amazement, and then jumped off the podium to stare incredulously Horowitz's hands. At the end, the house rose, screaming hysterically. The leading critic wrote that "not since Hamburg discovered Caruso has there been anything like this."

The sequel to the story is not quite as enchanting. The hero left for Paris late that evening for his Rome debut sitting up in a third-class coach, recalling the audience's exuberance--while nibbling on a dry cheese sandwich that had taken his last cent.

Radical highs and lows interspersed with bizarre twists of fate have characterized Horowitz's life, and have undoubtedly been responsible, at least in part, for his quirkiness and instability. Twice at the heights of popularity he has left the concert stage for more than ten years, with rumored nervous breakdowns. He has said that he is frightened by people en masse, and by concert audiences.

So it was a surprise to many, to say the least, when at 4:07 last Friday afternoon he walked onto the fourth floor of Korvette's on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to sign autographs for the throngs of fans who had patiently lined up to catch a glimpse of the demigod.

To the New Yorkers who had seen in past months other classical music stars like Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills and Leonard Bernstein pass through the aisles of the Korvette's record department, Horowitz's appearance might not have come as a surprise. But for anyone familiar with the recluse's habits and lifestyle, Horowitz's show was to be as remote a possibility as an acceptance from Greta Garbo to appear on the Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show".

One theory on why the pianist, considered to be among the two best pianists alive today (along with Arthur Rubinstein), has come to appease the masses is that he is still very concerned (absurdly so, considering his status) with his popularity. He is, perhaps, overly sensitive about it. A negative review in The Boston Globe many years ago prompted Horowitz to swear he'd never return to Symphony Hall. Although there are practically riots at the box office every time his recital tickets go on sale, he insists that his manager take out full-page ads in Musical America, the promotional magazine featuring young and upcoming musicians who are relatively fresh faces in the music world. The New York Times reported last week that Horowitz was more concerned whether fans would show up, than with the actual Korvette's ordeal, and expressed concern the night before that it might rain.

But the artist and the hordes showed up at the department store, in spite of the rain. Standing with his wife, Wanda, daughter of the late conductor Arturo Toscanini, Horowitz explained to the crowd the reasons for his rare gesture: "You see, I don't play in New York again until January 1978, the 50th annivarsary of my New York debut. So I thought the public could this way see that I am in good health and good shape."

The news was welcomed by all. But at this point, nobody can tell whether, before that 1978 date, another twist of fate will cause him to withdraw back into his living room to declare an end to his performing career altogether. The aura of mystery that surrounds Vladimir Horowitz persists.