Classic Mornings

Autumnated Musical Thoughts


It’s probably not the kind of thing that comes to mind when you think of Halloween and scary stories. Pianists Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich once interviewed each other in the presence of Gramophone’s Jeremy Nicholas.  What makes it somewhat “seasonal” is that they shared personal stories about stage fright. The monsters that appeared were crowds that sat too close, pianos that didn’t respond to their playing or poor acoustics. 

That was 7 years ago. It was around that time that Stephen Kovacevich was in for an ever greater scare. He suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak - and which affected both of his hands. He told Michael Roddy of Reuters that when he left the hospital, a specialist told him: “When you go home, you turn the key in your apartment, you go to the piano and you start." He said that 2 weeks later, he played Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto – not fantastically, but good. 

October 17th marked Stephen Kovacevich’s 75th birthday. He was born in California. His father was Croatian with the surname Kovacevich.  When he was a child, his mother, who was born in the United States, remarried. He changed his surname to that of his stepfather: Bishop. Indeed there are lots of recordings out there with pianist Stephen Bishop. There are lots of recordings out there featuring the singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Bishop too. That was a bit of a frightening situation back then. So the pianist began to call himself Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, and eventually Stephen Kovacevich. 

Kovacevich made his debut in San Francisco at age 12, but then headed off to London in 1959 when he was 19 to study with Dame Myra Hess. He’s been living in London ever since. In fact, he’ll celebrate his 75th birthday in London on November 2nd. He’ll be performing a program of music for piano duet (also known as piano four hands – one keyboard, 2 players) with Martha Argerich. It’s funny, I have to wonder whenever I see the words “piano four hands.”  Do those who are new to the term think of music played by people with four hands or that the pianos have four hands?

Wolves have four legs. And it’s about this time of year that you might get re-acquainted with wolves or wolf-like creatures from books, films or trick-or-treaters. If you listen to classical music long enough, you’ll get to know a number of Wolfs. No, I didn’t say wolves. The name Wolf, which is German for wolf (though pronounced with a “v” sound and a long “o”) creeps into classical music here and there. The most famous of all is Wolf(gang) Amadeus Mozart. There are composers Hugo Wolf and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, (which might bring to mind a wolf at the wheel of a fancy car). You might also hear the names of conductors Wolfgang Sawallisch and Hugh Wolff (who is American, pronounces his name like wolf in English and celebrated his birthday on October 21st).  I can extend it to other cultures and add those named Lupu and Lopez.  And whenever I mention musical Wolfs, I always like to mention English composer Herbert Howells.

We’ve just been introduced to another Wolf from a new recording, namely Ernst Wilhelm Wolf, a contemporary of Haydn. (That invites a little wordplay having to do with a wolf hidn’ in the 18th century.) The new recording features string quartets by Wolf performed by the Pleyel Quartet of Cologne, named for a younger contemporary of Wolf, composer Ignaz Pleyel (CPO 777856).  Wolf, who was born in 1735, spent most of his years in the German cities of Jena and Weimar, both southwest of Leipzig.  He wrote stage works, sacred works, concertos, symphonies and chamber music. He died in 1792.

Whether you’re planning to dress up as a wolf or one in sheep’s clothing, I’m guessing that nobody’s going out for Halloween dressed as a piano sonata.  We’re reminded by Misha Donat in the notes to a new recording that composer Robert Schumann called Franz Schubert’s second set of 4 impromptus a sonata in disguise. Scottish-born pianist Steven Osborne has just released a recording of the impromptus, as well as the 3 Piano Pieces, D. 956 by Schubert. He’s included Schubert’s disguises (variations) on a theme by one of his contemporaries: Anselm Hüttenbrenner (Hyperion 68107).

It’s that time of year when strangers come to your door in costume. Still, I wasn’t expecting the people who showed up at the door of the studio during a program last week. No, they weren’t wearing costumes, just hearty smiles.  They were visitors from an assisted living community here in Champaign-Urbana on a tour of Campbell Hall.

For a moment I felt like somebody who wasn’t prepared for a Halloween crowd and with nothing to offer them except for greetings.  They were quick to remind me that I give them something to look forward to each morning – Classic Mornings.  It reminded me of how much of a treat it is for listeners to enjoy classical music each weekday morning hosted by somebody from their community who keeps them company, chats about that music, tells stories – somebody that they can visit too, as they did!

There’s so much more where that came from. And you don’t have to worry about lining up early in case the treats run out. There’s plenty to enjoy year round, thanks to the generous support of listeners. Join me Monday through Friday from 9–noon for Classic Mornings, with the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50 on FM 90.9 and online at