Gary Graffman Talks Woody Allen, Conductors and Vodka

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Gary Graffman jokes that the most-famous, best-selling album of his career barely acknowledges his participation on its cover. That, of course, was the soundtrack to Woody Allen's "Manhattan," in which he played Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. "In big letters is 'Manhattan,'" he said. "Way down below in tiny print is 'Gary Graffman.'"

Yet a generation of concertgoers came to know Graffman through his many recordings of the major concertos, chamber music and later, contemporary works for the left hand. Still others know him best as a teacher to superstar pianists including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

Moviegoers who know his "Manhattan" performance can find it on a 24-CD boxed set of recordings from the 1950s on, released just in time for his 85th birthday on Monday. Graffman visited the WQXR studios to talk about his eventful career.

On Recording with Orchestras: Though difficult to confirm, Graffman believes he's likely the only musician who has recorded with each of the so-called "Big Five" U.S. orchestras (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland). He has particularly vivid memories of working with George Szell, the exacting conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 to 1970: "He had a reputation for being quite fierce. He had things to say to everybody. It didn’t matter if it was a young person making his debut or a very well-established artist older than he was. He would not agree to do anything unless he gave it 100 percent. He was absolutely prepared and he expected only that from everyone else."

On Injuring His Left Hand in 1977 Graffman sprained the ring finger of his right hand. An poorly altered technique exacerbated matters, forcing him to stop using his right hand altogether by 1979. "For the first year and a little bit into the second, I was going to doctors," he said, figuring, "maybe something could be done about it." But reality sank in and Graffman made lemons of lemonade, applying himself to teaching, travel and the left-hand repertoire. Besides, he realized he had already done 100 concerts a year for 30 years. "I couldn’t say I was robbed of a career."

On Teaching: Graffman got his pedagogical approach from his own teacher, Vladimir Horowitz. "He never criticized me, or said, 'I think you’re on the wrong track.' He criticized me on the basis of what I was aiming for, and not succeeding perhaps." Graffman hopes that if you heard his students, you wouldn’t know they had the same teacher.

On Lang Lang: "I think on his own actually he’s simmered down quite a lot," said Graffman when asked about the young Chinese pianist's flamboyant reputation. "He is extremely well adjusted."

On Flavored Vodka: "I'm very famous for my flavored vodkas," Graffman said with evident pride (and little overstatement). As a boy in New York in the 1930s, Graffman sampled the vodka his Russian-born parents drank. Over time he came to try different ingredients – horseradish, lemon-lime, ginger, peppercorns, and most recently, vodka with dill. His experimentation continues. "I play the field sometimes."

Listen to the full interview above.