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Piano Man

Stricken with a series of hand injuries that left him unable to perform and sometimes unable to play a single note on the piano, Murray Perahia worried a few years ago that his musical career might come to an end.

Stricken with a series of hand injuries that left him unable to perform and sometimes unable to play a single note on the piano, Murray Perahia worried a few years ago that his musical career might come to an end. Instead, he has made a successful comeback and will open Carnegie Hall’s fall season Wednesday night.

Perahia will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 at The Opening Night Gala of Carnegie Hall’s 117th Season with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson. The pianist will return to the fabled venue in November for a solo recital, where he will perform the works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin, as part of a nine-city tour.

“It’s a great thrill to be back because there were times I didn’t think I would play again,” says Perahia. “I hope to keep playing.”

His long road back to the tour circuit has been a difficult one. Perahia’s health problems began in the early Nineties, when he suffered a severe cut on his finger. He was given a clean bill of health later in the decade for a comeback, but several years ago, other hand problems flared up.

During his most difficult times, Perahia turned to the works of Bach for solace.

“His music provided me with spiritual comfort and nourishment, and I saw hope through his music,” he says. “Playing music isn’t just a job for me. It’s a language I speak, and without it, it’s like having my tongue cut out and being unable to communicate.”

After two years of listening to scores of Bach and Handel, burying himself in the famous composers’ biographies and studying analytical works by Heinrich Schenker, Perahia was poised to make yet another comeback.

“All the music I had listened to had an effect on me,” he says. “Perhaps it made me stronger musically.”

His upcoming stops at Carnegie Hall stir fond memories for the musician.

“I used to sneak in and hear concerts practically every Saturday night. The key is to get to know the ushers,” jokes the now 60-year-old Perahia, who has performed as a soloist and conductor in every major concert hall around the globe.

This story first appeared in the October 2, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While Perahia didn’t always know he wanted to be a soloist, he developed a love of music early in life, when his father took him to concerts and operas. Perahia later enrolled in Mannes College, a music conservatory, where he majored in conducting and composition. Shortly after graduating, he began teaching at his alma mater and the Curtis Institute of Music, where he served as Rudolf Serkin’s assistant. Still, he never considered a solo career until a manager suggested he enter the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972, which he won.

Although Perahia claims his favorite pieces are the ones he’s working on at any given time, he enjoys the works of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Schumann. He especially likes Mozart’s “humanity and complication,” and considers Mendelssohn an underrated composer. Yet Perahia still finds challenges in every piece he plays.

“Whatever I’m playing is always difficult because of every piece’s many aspects, from the music and tone to the color and emotion,” says Perahia. “To make music without getting lost in its ‘technical forest’ is a challenge musicians are all faced with.”

As for which composition sets apart the true world class pianists, Perahia cites Mozart’s work as a true standard of excellence.

“There aren’t many notes, so a pianist can’t just get away with pure virtuosity. Every note has to speak,” he says. “A certain sincerity is required because every note has to matter and mean something. Playing Mozart is like a reflection of the pianist’s soul. It’s not just making pretty music and nice sounds.”

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