Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Richard Goode

Classical Music Column for ANG Newspapers Preview Section, March 29, 2002

Genius can pop up in unlikely places. Sometimes a rather extraordinary plant sprouts in the middle of a very ordinary flower garden -- or even amidst a field of weeds. At first it might not differ much from its neighbors. But as time passes, it begins to differentiate from the rest and metamorphoses into an unsolicited blossom of unique beauty.

So can be with genius. Sir Isaac Newton emerged onto the field of history in such fashion. So did Leonardo, Beethoven, and Edison. And so did the New York-born Richard Goode, a gentlemanly, deceptively average-looking, middle-aged pianist currently in the Bay Area with his violinist wife Marcia Weinfeld for a set of concerts and music-related events.

Goode's musical activities last week included two recitals and a master-class in Berkeley. Remaining events will be an all-Bach recital with his wife (already sold-out), on Saturday at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, and a solo recital, for which tickets are still available, at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco.

During an interview in the lunch room of a Berkeley hotel last week, Goode talked about his inauspicious beginnings, eventual career and the role of music in life. His manner was genial and his expressive eyes were animated by wreaths of smile lines that make him look like a kindly character from a Charles Dickens novel. �I was in no way a child prodigy,� he said with unaffected modesty. �My parents weren't involved in music, although my father had some musical ability. But, as a child, I heard mostly pop music.�

Nonetheless, he was started on piano lessons at age six. It was not until he was in his mid-teens that he played his first solo concert, which included Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. Although he didn't win any flashy international piano competitions in his youth, he did play for the legendary pianist, Rudolf Serkin, after which Serkin invited him to participate in the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont for several summers. Subsequently, Goode was so enamored with music and the piano, that he continued music study at the Mannes College of Music in New York, and eventually, at Curtis Institute of Music, where once again, he came under Serkin's influence. �It just seemed the best thing going,� he said with diffident shrug.

Because of his shyness about being in the limelight, Goode's initial concert appearances tended to be as a member of a chamber group or as an accompanist. He was 47 before he gave his first solo recital in Carnegie Hall. He made his first public excursion through the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas during a series of concerts at New York City's 92nd Street Y in 1987 and 1988. In 1993, Nonesuch Records released his 10-CD Beethoven set, the first ever by an American-born pianist. He has since won a Grammy for his recording with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and has an extensive discography that includes Bach Partitas, Chopin, a series of Mozart piano concerti, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and smattering of moderns.

�I have a hard time with music I can't hear and construe tonally,� he said. �I suppose it's a habit of ear.�

Now at the height of his powers at age 59, Goode is known the world over as a pianist, and even further, as a MUSICIAN of rare genius. In addition to a full schedule of solo, chamber, and orchestral concerts throughout the world, he now serves with Mitsuko Uchida as co-artistic director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival. Almost everyone who hears him perform, including the pickiest of critics, comes away from his concerts not only edified, but awed.

Certainly, Goode thinks of music as more than a way to earn a living or a vehicle to fame and fortune. When I asked his ideas about whether or not classical music could offer much to our modern world, he paused thoughtfully and then replied, �Music takes all the possible feelings we have, and by somehow ordering them and making something meaningful out of them, creates a sense of harmony that maybe we can assimilate and carry away.�

To a question about what it takes to become a great pianist, Goode said, �What counts most is the pianist's listening ability. He must be able to listen deeply and inwardly INTO the music. It takes more than either great technique or musical ability to make a great musician. A great pianist/musician must be able to understand the IDEAS in the music. Then he has to be able to communicate them.�

During his concerts, Goode certainly manages to communicate -- not only his own ideas, but the composers' as well. He even seems able to assume the mindset of whichever composer he happens to be playing, whether it be Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, or Debussy. One critic even boldly asserted that one might �swear the composer himself was at the keyboard� during a Goode concert.

The majority of critics agree that Goode's Bach interpretations reflect a profound intellect that can fastidiously delineate the melodic and/or rhythmic motifs that weave through Bach's mighty constructions of line and design. In contrast, Goode's readings of Chopin pulse with barely bridled emotion and an uncannily idiomatic Polish �Zal� (soul) as he moves from passages of gossamer delicacy to cascades of Romantic bravura.

But it is his Beethoven that elicit the most extravagant reactions from critic and audience alike. �Beethoven's music is immensely powerful and positive,� Goode said as he sipped a glass of ice tea. �It is completely satisfying. Beethoven's music is like a meal made up of all the basic food groups. There is nothing left out.�

Explaining further, Goode said, "The piano was the instrument where Beethoven put his deepest musical ideas. And it was in his sonatas that he did the most musically wild and bizarre things and where he went furthest out on a limb.�

While here in the Bay Area, the Goodes, both of whom admit to being �gourmands,� plan to enjoy some of the region's noted dining and wine-ing venues along with as many book stores as their time permits. Both are enthusiastic, eclectic readers and have more than 5,000 volumes stashed in their New York City home.

�But I have to be careful about what I'm reading when I'm on a concert tour,� Goode said with a chuckle. �What you read influences your state of mind, and hence your upcoming concert. During my last European tour I was reading Dickens' `Pickwick Papers.'

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