Vladimir Horowitz, 1986 concert

Horowitz, 1986 concert in Moscow

Vladimir Horowitz, 1986 concert in Moscow

In 1986, Vladimir Horowitz,  came out of depression and semi-retirement. He re-entered Moscow after 61 years to deliver one of the best piano concerts ever.

A PBS special includes much of the actual performance and fascinating background on the politics, his personal life, and the music.  I enjoyed it on many levels.

My Dad would have loved it, too. He had died 17 years earlier, but he was a big fan of Horowitz’s, and of course Steinways, which he sold in his piano store. He also hated and feared the USSR. He would have totally understood the requirement to have Horowitz’s personal Steinway shipped to Moscow under Marine Corps guard.

I like the fact that Horowitz, especially this late Horowitz, chose mostly intermediate level pieces, especially the Chopin and the Mozart. I can at least play at many of them, but he shows how they can really be played. I’ve been working on the Schumann Träumerai (near the end) for 67 years. Listening to this concert just made it better.

Horowitz didn’t strive for virtuosity (the “pyrotechnics”) as many young, modern performers do. He lets the music speak. He makes more mistakes than most champion performers would do, but they’re totally immaterial. As some of the commentators point out, he never forces the notes.

The show is available through PBS online until February 20 (click on the image above). I hope you enjoy it.

How Bruce Piano Co. nearly lost, then saved Elvis’s career

In the dark recesses of the Bruce Piano Company archives lies a story about a daring rescue of the equally renowned career of Elvis Presley. We can thank this event for the perpetuation of the late Elvis as the King, and led to many Elvis impersonators for years afterwards.

Bertram Camp Bruce

Bertram Camp Bruce (Sr.)

Background

To understand this story you’ll need some background. My father, who founded the piano store, loved music––classical, jazz, big band, solo pop of the Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby varieties––but most assuredly not rock music, country, or Elvis in particular. I imagine much grave-spinning around the thought that his company was to play such a crucial role for Elvis. 

My Dad, however, did not live to see this disturbing event. He died in late 1969. His brother Don, whom he had invited into the business shortly before, took over. But then he died just two years later. Both men were in their early 50’s. My mother remained as the owner of what was by then a struggling business. The growth of electronic entertainments, such as TV and hi-fi, the advent of big box stores, smaller families, and other large societal changes meant that the image of a piano in every middle-class home was fading away.

Although my mother would have been a very good business person (as this story will demonstrate), her upbringing in Georgia nearly a century ago told her that this was not a role for a lady. The same logic would extend to her daughters, who were also busy with family and work. Her son was far away, doing something or another.

A sale of the business seemed to be the obvious path. But there was no willing buyer. Rather than having a distress sale, which would have yielded little, we worked out a deal whereby the manager, Harvey, would buy the store over time, using the revenues the business would generate. Harvey couldn’t have been guaranteed a very good salary. This way he could establish his own pay based on the success he could generate, and in the end, he’d own a business. My mother would be able to draw something from the business that had been the center of the family for many years. The arrangement wasn’t ideal, but was probably the best solution all around. 

Ultimately the broader changes in society did the business in. But for a while, Harvey did his best and Bruce Piano Co. was a going concern. Harvey tried to follow my father’s model, offering a range of instruments, working with piano teachers, assisting the local concert scene, and participating in music conventions. A conflict between the last two of these was what put Elvis’s career in jeopardy. (My children say that I’m prone to exaggerate, but you may rest assured that that is the greatest falsity ever uttered.)

June 15, 1974, Fort Worth, ©James W. Stout

June 15, 1974, Fort Worth, ©James W. Stout

Elvis’s concerts in Fort Worth

The problem was that Harvey had agreed that the store would supply a piano for Elvis’s concerts in Fort Worth. There were to be four productions at the Tarrant County Convention Center. Although Elvis was near the end of his career, and life, and his audience had aged along with him, there was still excitement and adoration for the idol. Fans didn’t mind the $10 ticket price for an hour-long concert, and would love even the shortened versions of his big hits, including “Love Me Tender,” “Fever,” “Why Me Lord,” “Houn’ Dog,” and “Suspicious Minds.”

But then Harvey left for the music convention, without arranging to fulfill the promise to deliver a piano. Elvis’s manager was understandably upset when he discovered that there was no piano on hand. He called the store, only to learn that Harvey was away and unreachable in those pre-cell days. He called Don’s wife Nancy, who didn’t know how to help. He finally called Bert’s wife and my mother, Catherine, the one who claimed that she didn’t know anything about business. 

Obtaining the piano

Catherine began to problem solve. She contacted the piano movers, but they had gone fishing. She pointed out that she had a key to the store, as the still current, if somewhat removed, owner. If Elvis’s team could come up with movers, she could get them in to the piano. 

They met at the store. Elvis sent three bodyguards, who, while not expert in piano moving, were at least strong and committed. But they didn’t know which piano had been ordred. Catherine decided that they wouldn’t go wrong with a concert grand, the biggest model. She found the wooden boxing that was needed to transport a grand piano safely. The team boxed the piano and carried it to the concert venue. After the four weekend concerts the piano was returned safely and Bruce Piano Co, could chalk up another successful service.

Conclusion

Could Elvis have found another piano, or performed without one? Could his career have survived a busted Fort Worth concert? Was the near disaster a sign of the end of both the piano store and Elvis? You’ll have to be the judge of that.

I can say that my mother proved that she could solve a business problem in a difficult and time-pressured circumstance. And I think that my father would have been proud that his company fulfilled its commitment, as long as he didn’t have to go to hear Elvis himself.

Summer jobs

This is a summary of some of the summer and part-time jobs I had before going to graduate school at the University of Texas.

  • Summer, 1968 (age 21). Research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Cognitive Systems at Texas Christian University. The Institute, directed by Selby Evans, was interested in pattern recognition by computer. I wrote a program to produce systematic distortions in black and white images so that we could assess the effectiveness of different pattern detection algorithms (see “Production and control of visual pattern variability by computer”). For example, we could then say that algorithm X could detect a pattern which had been distorted 30% along a particular dimension, but not 40%. The distortions included various versions or rotating, stretching, flipping, or just adding random noise.
  • Rice University, Psychology

    Rice University, Psychology

    School year, 1966-67 and 1967-68. Psychology department research assistant at Rice University. I helped set up experiments on behavioral conditioning in rats and learned a little about electrical circuit design.

  • ice-bag-2Summer, 1967 (age 20). Research assistant at the Public Health Service Clinical Research Center in Fort Worth. This was one of two Federal research centers, the other being in Lexington, Kentucky. The Center housed both VA psychiatric patients and criminal addicts. My job was to review case files looking for patterns in the lives of addicts, such as those related to early drug use and job history.I learned a lot about the importance of community in shaping young people’s lives, and how hard it was to change individual behavior when it was nearly impossible to secure a job or to find meaningful opportunities away from a drug culture.
  • Earlier that summer I had a brief job working in an ice house, primarily carrying bags of ice from a conveyor belt to a truck, because there was no machine to do that.
  • orderly2School year, 1965-66. Mail room worker at Rice University. I briefly got to drive the little mail truck until one of the other workers got drunk and smashed it up.
  • Summer, 1965 and 1966 (ages 18 and 19). Orderly at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth. I learned how to perform various kinds of enemas and catheterizations, work with patients in the psychiatric ward, apply orthopedic weights for patients whose limbs were lifted by ropes and pulleys, and do various other procedures that a teenager with no experience would not be allowed to do today. My co-workers came from all over Fort Worth, representing a variety of backgrounds. They helped open up my world.I read later that Nietzsche was a hospital orderly during the Franco-Prussian War, which influenced his views of life and death, including the development of the idea of Will to Power.200px-apollo_program_insignia
  • School year, 1964-65. Experimental subject for the NASA Apollo program. I was one of three “astronauts” in a simulated three-day mission to outer space. We ate dehydrated space food and carried out mostly boring and repetitive tasks. We each had 11 electrodes pasted on to our bodies to monitor EEG, ECG, and vital signs. One outcome of the study was to learn that paste-on electrodes don’t work after about 2 1/2 days, because the hair grows back.
  • fwzooSummer, 1964 (age 17). Concession stand worker at the Fort Worth Zoo. We sold soft drinks, fries, and BBQ sandwiches. Each morning we had to fill out a squirrel damage report detailing any destruction of supplies due to squirrels and other zoo residents. This started with things like “3 bags of corn chips had chew holes in them.” But we were called in when it began to say, “4 large drinks, 2 BBQ sandwiches, 1 without onions, 3 orders of fries.”My friends Leslie, Ben, John, Hull, and others worked there, too, so we had lots of time to talk about books, life, and our futures. We’d go bowling at lunchtime, sometimes managing to get to the bowling alley, bowl three games, and still get back before the half hour lunch break was over.scuba-diving-03
  • Summer, 1963 (age 16). Researcher for Colonial Cafeterias. My friend John Horan and I used contest entry forms to develop a primitive geographic information system (GIS) representing the source of patrons of the cafeteria. We also scouted out competing cafeterias to assess the level of current and potential business in different areas of town.
  • Also, that summer, a job cleaning public swimming pools using scuba equipment in order to stay under the water longer.
  • ivory-piano-keysSummer, 1962 (age 15). Piano repair at the Bruce Piano Company.
  • Summer and part-time, 1959-63 (ages 12 to 17). Various yard work jobs–mowing, edging, clearing brush, raking leaves, etc.; newspaper delivery