Yet, though he was proud of his heritage, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”
New York Times obituary for Peter Serkin Nepal and Thailand were the wrong places to look, even if they were trendy and plausible at the time. But I sure recognized my generation in his questioning.
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 Mr. 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.”
I’m really glad they put that in the obit. Playing that from memory is amazing and Messiaen’s approval is high tribute.
(I think my only recording of Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus is on pipe organ. That it was composed for piano seemed a little implausible to me. Wikipedia says that it was.)