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Why famous concert pianist Stephen Kovacevich almost abandoned his illustrious career

Stephen Kovacevich, pianist and conductor, at Burgh House. Picture: Nigel Sutton Stephen Kovacevich, pianist and conductor, at Burgh House. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Friday, April 18, 2014
5:00 PM

There was a moment when the world famous concert pianist Stephen Kovacevich felt he just couldn’t play well enough and nearly gave up his career at the age of 32.

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“I just felt I couldn’t do this anymore because I just felt I wasn’t playing well,” the pianist told an audience at Burgh House in New End Square, Hampstead, last Thursday.

Mr Kovacevich, now 73, being interviewed by former BBC producer Piers Plowright, continued: “Luckily, I had a friend who said to me, ‘Stephen, I don’t care if you go on or not. But I do care if you stop for the wrong reasons’.

“That helped me to decide that it would be better to keep going and be defeated than to give up. So I did.”

The virtuoso musician was born in California, started playing the piano aged seven, and gave his first professional concerts aged 11.

He came to England when he was 18 to study under the renowned pianist, Dame Myra Hess, and he has lived in Hampstead since the 1960s.

“When I arrived I had a lot of ability, but I had a rather monotonous and monochorome sound – and she gave me colour,” Mr Kovacevich said.

Balance

“The first thing we worked on was Brahms’s Hanover Variations. Now the theme can be sight read and is not difficult, but we spent more than 45 minutes trying to get a brilliant balance between my hands with a clear sound.

“I didn’t know you could work like that on such a simple piece – so you could imagine how hard we worked on pieces with more subtlety and complexity. She was a very great teacher.”

Despite his international acclaim, the pianist revealed that he was often very nervous before performances.

“I still regard concerts as something like an American rodeo where cowboys try to ride wild horses and bulls and get thrown off – the whole concert is a wild horse that I have to ride,” he said.

Mr Kovacevich said that he practiced for about six or seven hours a day but the reward is playing marvellously well.

“You can play a piece hundreds of times and still discover new things in it every time,” he said. “It’s a mystery. I don’t know what the process of this discovery is; I just observe it happening.

“But there is something even more tantalising, even more difficult to understand: when you’re playing and you think you’re inspired, it isn’t necessarily true. And at other times you think that you are dry and not very good and that also isn’t true.

“I remember one concert when I felt I had played so badly that I expected to be booed at the end – but I received an astonishing audience ovation. And when I heard the tape, I could see it was indeed the best. I don’t understand that at all, but it is true.”

Mr Kovacevich also spoke about the stroke he had some years ago after which he temporarily lost his speech.

“That was very scary, because at the time I thought I might not speak again.

“But three weeks later I played the Emperor Concerto and, while it wasn’t great, it certainly wasn’t bad.

“Everything got better slowly and now I am alright. I don’t know whether it’s merely my age, or because of the stroke, but I certainly have to practice harder on a much smaller repertoire that I ever did. But at the moment, that’s OK.”

He used to play between 60 and 70 concerts a year but now limits that to 10 or 12.

He also spoke about his friendship with the brilliant cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, who also lived in Hampstead before she died in 1987.

“She was the most musical person I ever met, with astonishing sensitivity, astonishing musicality,” he revealed.

“She was also wonderful company. I never experienced the dark side she was said to have had. I just found her radiant and ridiculously musical. She had a magic that was simply unexplainable, an instinctive genius.”

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