Beethoven Would Not Have Survived This Recital, But …

the pianist did, and so did I – barely!

This was the piano recital to top them all! No, it wasn’t exactly Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubenstein at Carnegie Hall. In fact, it took place long enough ago (1974 or thereabouts) that the stalwart pianist’s name has, regrettably, faded from memory.1 But I retain a clear recollection of the venue, the audience, the piano and the breathtaking – under the circumstances – performance. Let me tell you about it.

The recital took place in Uberaba, a dusty city in the agricultural interior of Brazil nearly 400 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro. From the sound of its first two syllables, you might suppose Uberaba had been named by German settlers. But no, the “uber” in Uberaba reflects nothing that is Teutonic. The name is what the original Tupi-speaking Amerindian inhabitants called the place. Nor did the town’s appearance at the time2 give the impression that it was über (German for “over” or “superior to”) any other sleepy burg.

The concert took place thanks to arrangements that the U.S. Information Agency (for which I worked at the time) had made to send this pianist – a faculty member at Indiana University’s School of Music – on a concert tour of Brazil. My colleagues at the U.S. embassy and a number of American consulates around the country were making arrangements for him to perform in various cities. At the time I was posted as assistant cultural attaché in Belo Horizonte, the bustling capital of the state of Minas Gerais, roughly midway between Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia.

A number of towns in Minas were host to local incarnations of the Instituto Cultural Brasil/Estados Unidos (Brazil-U.S. Cultural Institute, or ICBEU), whose mainstay activity was teaching English, but which also arranged cultural presentations whenever an opportunity arose. So it was that the Uberaba ICBEU, headed by an elderly Dutch immigrant – who, I’m guessing, may not have heard a live performance of classical music since he’d left Holland decades earlier – jumped at the chance to host a recital by a talented American pianist.

The arrangement was that, as the U.S. embassy’s local representative, I would meet the pianist when he arrived, by car, in Uberaba from the site of his previous engagement, a city of similar size in the interior of the neighboring state of São Paulo.

On the appointed day – a Saturday, as I recall – my wife and I left Belo Horizonte in the morning for the six-and-a-half-hour journey to Uberaba. As we drove through the flat, largely featureless landscape, my wife, an amateur pianist, casually asked whether I’d arranged with the folks at the ICBEU to have the piano tuned in preparation for the occasion. While the question hit me like a thunderbolt, I assured her with all the confidence I could muster that they could hardly have neglected to do that.

But the seed of doubt had been sown. It gnawed at me for the last three hours of the trip. Despite my love of music, piano tuning had never, till then, crossed the mind of this woefully inexperienced junior practitioner of cultural attaché-ing.

Uberaba

When we finally got to Uberaba, we drove straight to the ICBEU. The pianist was due to arrive in an hour or two, so I had an opportunity to check out the venue and, of course, the piano.

Beethoven would have died a second death had he seen the instrument. First, it was not a grand, but an upright – the sort they play in saloons in old Westerns – and it looked ancient enough to have done service in between gunfights in Tombstone.

When I dared touch the keys, it was clear that the sound would have rendered Beethoven3 lifeless yet a third time. It seemed as though the instrument had not been tuned since the day it arrived in Uberaba. Moreover, its honky-tonk notes were produced only by the keys that worked. Scattered among the ivories were quite a number that produced no sound at all.

I asked about the availability of a piano tuner and was told the nearest one was in the city of São Paulo itself, over five hours away. My heart sank.

Then the performer arrived. And a miracle ensued. No prima donna, the pianist was, rather, a trouper. He sat down, ran through a few scales and bars of the first piece on his program, and gamely announced that he could make it work.

Which, at the appointed hour, he did. With his fortissimo attack on the keyboard, the thunderous chords and arpeggios more than compensated for the keys that failed to sound, and he sailed through the entire recital on the power of his fingers.

And, apparently, on the weakness of his peripheral vision as well.

I mention his peripheral vision to point out the other little shortcoming of the venue – the layout of the salon in which the recital took place. It was located on the second floor of the ICBEU’s three- or four-story building.4 It had no stage. Rather, the piano was situated against a long wall at the front of the room. A short distance fore and aft of the instrument, the wall was broken by two large French doors that opened onto the spacious landing of the building’s broad main staircase, the perfect place for old friends to mill about and have an animated chat about all the exciting things that had happened since Tuesday.

With ICBEU’s second-floor landing appearing to be the coolest place for Uberabenses to hang out on a Saturday evening, as the recital progressed, people would wander into the room through those wide-open doorways to see what was going on, then seat themselves whenever the fancy struck them, clambering past long rows of knees and ignoring the niceties of waiting for a pause between pieces.

Actually, not everyone took a seat. Some just walked up behind the performer and looked over his shoulder for a few minutes. And quite of few of those who did take a seat stood up after a while, shuffled back across all those knees, went right past the pianist and his flying fingers, and returned to the staircase in the apparent hope of finding entertainment more to their taste on an upper floor.

Oblivious to it all, our stalwart performer pounded his way through the program. No greater trouper, I venture to guess, has ever graced a stage in Uberaba. Nor, I fervently hope, will one ever again have to do so.

***

  1. On the off chance that anyone reading this blog should happen to know the identity of the performer – perhaps by having heard the story told from his perspective – I’d love to learn his name and add a comment giving him credit. Please let me know.
  1. In drafting this piece, I felt obliged to look up Uberaba to see if it remains as sleepy and dusty as I recall it. I found that it now has a population of over 300,000 – quite a bit more than it appeared to have when I visited – and is a hub of both agriculture and industry.
  1. OK, I’ll concede that for the last 10 years of his life, Beethoven could not have been struck dead by a sound – any sound! – since he had gone stone deaf by around age 45. But for most of his first three decades of life, he could hear as well as anyone, and if he’d been in Uberaba that day, he’d have been horrified.
  1. Uberaba’s ICBEU is no longer in the building of my memories. A check of the internet indicates that it moved into a modern new facility in 2015.
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