Peter Serkin, 72, dies; Pianist with pedigree who forged a new path

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Peter Serkin, 72, dies; Pianist with pedigree who forged a new path
The pianist Peter Serkin plays during the Peoples' Symphony Concerts series at the High School of Fashion Industries in New York, on March 30, 2013. Serkin, admired for his insightful interpretations, technically pristine performances and tenacious commitment to contemporary music, died on Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2020, at his home in Red Hook, N.Y., in Dutchess County, near the campus of Bard University, where he was on the faculty. He was 72. Richard Termine/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Peter Serkin, a pianist admired for his insightful interpretations, technically pristine performances and tenacious commitment to contemporary music, died Saturday morning at his home in Red Hook, New York, in Dutchess County, near the campus of Bard University, where he was on the faculty. He was 72.

His death, from pancreatic cancer, was announced by his family.

Serkin was descended from storied musical lineages on both sides of his family. His father was eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin; his maternal grandfather was influential conductor and violinist Adolf Busch, whose musical forebears went back generations.

By 12, Peter Serkin was performing prominently in public, and he soon seemed poised to continue the legacy of his father, who was known for authoritative accounts of the central European repertory.

His first two recordings, made for the RCA label when he was 18, confirmed this impression. One was a buoyant, lucid and probing account of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations that many critics compared favorably to Glenn Gould’s influential version; the other was a glowing, preternaturally mature account of Schubert’s spacious late Sonata in G, Op. 78.

Though he was proud of his heritage, Serkin found it a burden. Like many who came of age in the 1960s, he questioned the establishment, both in society at large and within classical music. He resisted a traditional career trajectory and at 21 stopped performing, going for months without even playing the piano.

He traveled to India, touching down in Nepal and Thailand, and lived for a while in Mexico with his wife at the time, Wendy Spinner, and their baby daughter.

Recalling those years in a 1987 interview with The Boston Globe, Serkin said that back then performing was often “a painful ordeal” for him, and that he could not bear all “that harping by musicians and critics on how you play, as if that’s the central issue.”

This pressure was compounded, he added, by the fact that his family “took music so seriously, in the Old World sense of being a kind of religion,” and maintained “such identification with our being musicians” that it was necessary “for me to just drop that.”

By challenging his legacy, he sought to claim it on his own terms, and contemporary music became central to his artistic identity. Yet Serkin disliked being called a “champion” of contemporary music, as if the music of his own time occupied some different realm and required expert advocates.

Throughout his career, he presented recital programs that juxtaposed the old and the new: 12-tone scores and Mozart sonatas; thorny pieces by the mid-20th-century German composer Stefan Wolpe and polyphonic works from the Renaissance. Admirers of his playing appreciated how he drew out allusions to music’s past in contemporary scores while conveying the radical elements of old music.

He played almost all the piano works of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Wolpe. He also introduced dozens of pieces, including major works and concertos, written for him by composers like Toru Takemitsu, Charles Wuorinen and, especially, his childhood friend Peter Lieberson.

Reviewing Serkin’s 1985 recording of Lieberson’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa, critic Tim Page wrote in The New York Times that Serkin seemed to him “America’s preeminent young pianist — his intelligence and perceptivity invariably take the listener to the heart of the music.”

Peter Adolf Serkin (his middle name was in honor of his grandfather) was born in Manhattan on July 24, 1947, the fifth of seven children of Rudolf Serkin and Irene Busch Serkin. (A daughter died in infancy.) During his childhood he mostly lived on his parents’ farm in Guilford, Vermont, not far from Marlboro College, the site of the summer Marlboro Music Festival, founded by a group of artists including Rudolf Serkin and his grandfather Adolf Busch.

Irene Serkin, like her father, played the violin, which was young Peter’s first instrument. But he was drawn more to the piano.

Nevertheless, Rudolf Serkin acknowledged that he had not given his son much encouragement early on. “I doubted he was talented,” he said in a 1980 New York Times Magazine profile of his son. “He was so full of tension when he played; I didn’t realize that was his real gift.” He said that having been compelled by his own father to be a musician, he “was reluctant to push Peter.”

At 11, Peter Serkin enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his father was teaching. (Rudolf Serkin later became the institute’s director.) There he studied with master Polish-born pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who became a major influence, as well as American virtuoso Lee Luvisi and his father.

After graduating at 18, Serkin took an apartment in New York, avidly listened to recordings by Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, and explored Buddhist and Hindu spiritual teachings. He found the pressure of playing in public, and simply of being a Serkin, almost crippling.

“Up until them I was playing concerts largely out of compulsion, and not much new music,” he said in a 1973 New York Times interview. “I had just fallen into it without ever deciding for myself that it was what I wanted to do.”

After his time off and restorative travels, he resumed performing with renewed satisfaction. That he had found the right balance was suggested by the success of two three-LP albums, both recorded in 1973, when he turned 26, both of which earned Grammy Award nominations.

The first offered Mozart’s Piano Concerto Nos. 14-19, with Alexander Schneider conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. The performance splendidly balanced Schneider’s Old World approach to Mozart with Serkin’s youthful, rethought playing.

The second was a complete account of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” a set of 20 solo piano “contemplations” on the infant Jesus composed in 1944. It is music of extraordinary difficulty lasting two and a half hours, alive with cluster chords and evocations of bird calls, moments of mystical bliss and stretches of driving intensity.

In conjunction with the recording, Serkin played the piece, from memory, more than two dozen times in concert halls and colleges, sometimes backed by a light show. Messiaen heard him play it at Dartmouth and was “really too kind,” the pianist recalled in the Boston Globe interview: “He told me that I respected the score, but that when I didn’t, it was even better.”

That same year he formed the chamber ensemble Tashi along with three like-minded colleagues: clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Fred Sherry. The group’s signature piece was Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” an alternately meditative and ecstatic work in eight movements lasting nearly 50 minutes. Tashi performed it more than 100 times, often with its young players dressed in dashikis or tunics, and recorded it to acclaim in 1975. The group essentially disbanded in the late 1970s after several internal upheavals.

Though Serkin never completely shook off the early perception of him as “the counterculture’s reluctant envoy to the straight concert world,” as Times critic Donal Henahan called him in an admiring 1973 profile, over time he reconciled to the ways, even the dress protocols, of that classical world and developed productive associations with artists like the Guarneri String Quartet, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who had married Peter Lieberson) and conductors Seiji Ozawa, Herbert Blomstedt, Robert Shaw and Pierre Boulez.

Having children also gave him an emotional mooring that he cherished, even during periods of marital strain. Karina Serkin Spitzley, the only child of his marriage to Spinner, which ended in divorce in 1979, survives him, along with four children from his second marriage, to Regina Touhey Serkin (from whom he was divorced in 2018): Maya, Elena, Stefan (named after Stefan Wolpe) and William Serkin; and two grandchildren. His brother, John, and his sisters Elizabeth, Judith and Marguerite, also survive him. Another sister, Ursula, died last year.

Serkin relished teaching, and held posts at institutions including the Mannes School of Music and the Juilliard School in New York, and, in recent years, Bard. He so enjoyed spending summers teaching at the Tanglewood Music Institute that he bought a home in the Berkshires and lived there for years.

During the 1989-90 season, realizing a long-held ambition, he took a program of 11 works he had commissioned on an extended tour. The composers included the elder masters Takemitsu, Leon Kirchner, Hans Werner Henze, Alexander Goehr and Luciano Berio, as well as Serkin’s contemporaries Oliver Knussen, Bright Sheng, Christine Berl, Tobias Picker, Tison Street and Lieberson. To prepare, Serkin had played no solo recitals the previous season.

“Not many people would make that kind of sacrifice,” Walter Pierce, a concert presenter in Boston who arranged for Serkin to play the program at Jordan Hall, said at the time, since it represented a “year out of the circuit” and would cost an artist “a lot of money.”

To that Serkin answered: “Maybe I’ll pay some kind of price in my career, but I don’t even think about it. I’d rather deal with something I believe in.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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