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Pianist Plays For Charitable Causes, Not Critics

  • Irina Robertson

American classical pianist Martin Berkofsky has impressed music critics around the world with his firebrand virtuosity. But 25 years ago, he stopped playing for critics and began performing for charitable causes. In this report by Irina Robertson, Faith Lapidus explains why.

Franz Liszt was the first musician who made an impression on Martin Berkofsky when he began playing the piano at the age of six. Today, he is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Hungarian composer's music. "This music is so much greater than I am," Berkofsky says. "I am so privileged to be in its company. Before a concert I have to pray for humility so that I will be equipped to play beautifully and the power of God would come through me."

Berkofsky was a child prodigy who began giving concerts at the age of eight. With the proud support of his Byelorussian parents, he toured the world. By his twenties, the young virtuoso had won international acclaim for his lyrical, powerful and disciplined artistry. "I was busy trying to make a career for myself," he admits, adding "nobody was safe from me, no conductor, no orchestra manager, no concert manager, no recording producers."

All that came to an end in 1982. Berkofsky, not yet 40, had a motorcycle accident, injuring his back and breaking his right arm in eight places. Doctors told him he would never perform again. He spent four months recovering from the accident. "I got a wonderful chance to think. I had a great vision while I was in the hospital, it was on Christmas Day 1982. And I knew I was going to be healed," he recalls.

Berkofsky was healed. And his life took a new turn. As he explains, "I said, 'That's it. Concerts, recordings, all of my activities from now on, as much as I can, will be to support good causes, humanitarian causes, peaceful causes, charitable causes.' And it's been like that since."

Berkofsky became known as "the benefit concert pianist." To support himself he taught piano and gave master classes in the United States and around the world.

Then in 2000, 18 years after his motorcycle accident, he was diagnosed with cancer. "And of course one goes through [the thought], 'This is a death sentence.'" But it wasn't. Berkofsky conquered the disease at the Cancer Treatment Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In 2003, he celebrated life – and his 60th birthday – by running 1400 kilometers from the Cancer Treatment Center in Tulsa, to its sister center in Chicago, Illinois. The journey took four months. Along the way, the pianist staged concerts, raising more than $80,000 for cancer research. Since then, Berkofsky's performances have helped several other causes.

The 2004 massacre of school children in Beslan, Russia, prompted him to organize concert tours with musician friends in Poland and the United States. Berkofsky dedicated many performances to Kitezh, a Russian community for orphans near Moscow.

Berkofsky's focus now is a posthumous tribute to his friend and frequent collaborator, Alan Hovhaness. The prolific, innovative Armenian-American composer died in 2000. Berkofsky has been performing his music for decades. "It is unique music," he says, "it is a blend of the very old and yet of the baroque, of the eastern, the western, all together."

Berkofsky says he and Hovhaness shared similar beliefs about the source and power of beautiful music. "I never doubted that music came from something far beyond and far greater than us. Hovhaness and I discussed this very much."

Martin Berkofsky was the driving force behind the Alan Hovhaness International Research Center, now being built in Yerevan, Armenia. Berkofsky is giving recitals at his home in Virginia to help finance it. He says the Center, which will be an archive of the composer's works, will also embody their shared ideals. "I hope this would be a center where, in our concerts, we would have people from opposing nationalities work and play together." Berkofsky has been promoting that vision for years, for example taking his Turkish student with him to perform in Armenia in 2006.

Beautiful music, offered with dedication, has the power to unite people, Berkofsky says. That deep unwavering belief still guides him through every performance.

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