News / Arts & Entertainment

    Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Back

    Piano virtuoso Walter Hautzig plays the Grieg Concerto in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, New York. (Courtesy of John DesMarteau)
    Piano virtuoso Walter Hautzig plays the Grieg Concerto in the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, New York. (Courtesy of John DesMarteau)
    Adam Phillips

    The peaceful atmosphere in the Upper West Side apartment where 92-year-old Walter Hautzig plays his piano amid family photographs and framed honors is many worlds away from the pre-war Vienna where he grew up. In 1938, when Hautzig was a 16-year-old prodigy, the Nazis took power in Austria.

    Hautzig says Jews were routinely beaten in the streets. Their businesses were closed.

    “That was the Austria I grew up in. You can’t imagine,” he said with a grimace.

    Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Back
    Aging New York Piano Virtuoso Looks Backi
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    Music was the boy’s only refuge. After authorities closed the state music academy he attended, Hautzig made a forbidden visit there, only to find the place filled with German soldiers. Their rifles covered the pianos.

    And then a miracle happened.

    Hautzig learned that the director of the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music was coming to Vienna to hold auditions for new students. Not knowing where they were to be held, Hautzig arrived at the man’s hotel at eight in the morning and waited. The director arrived at two in the afternoon, only to offer his regrets and leave to hail a taxi.  

    Desperate, Hautzig made his move. 

    “I jumped into the taxi ahead of him,” he recalled, “and said ‘I’m going with you!’ That took a lot of chutzpah. We got to an apartment and there was a piano. The director pointed to it and said ‘Play! Spiel!’ And I sat down and I played. When I finished, he said ‘I’ll bring you to Jerusalem under any circumstances.’”  

    From Nazi-Occupied Vienna to Palestine, then New York

    With further chutzpah and some luck, Hautzig obtained an ultra-rare exit visa and left for Palestine, leaving his family behind. His parents later managed to get out of Austria too. His mother joined his sister in New York the very day Hitler invaded Poland. Another sister escaped on skis into Switzerland.

    Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)
    x
    Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)
    Walter Hautzig in his New York apartment, July 16, 2014 (VOA / Adam Phillips)

    Hautzig flourished at the music conservatory in Palestine, but after a year-and-a-half, went to join his family in New York.

    “New York at that time was full of refugees like me. They were at the opera and they were in the orchestras, and they became the conductors of major orchestras," he said. "They brought a lot with them,” including the Romantic musical traditions of the Old World.

    Hautzig particularly remembers an elderly habitué of the Jewish cafeterias. Max Graf had been an important critic in Vienna before the Nazis. 

    Graf regaled the younger man with stories about Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), whom he had known as a youth, and Johann Strauss (1864-1949), the composer of “The Blue Danube” and many celebrated waltzes. He also spoke of the time he accompanied Strauss to a meeting with Hindemith, the avant-garde composer. 

    “And Strauss said to Paul Hindemith ‘Why do you write atonal music? You don’t have to do that. After all you have talent!’” recalled Hautzig with a laugh.

    Hautzig’s own talent was widely admired at his New York debut at Town Hall in 1943. He began to tour America, including the racially-segregated South. What he saw disturbed him.

    “When I saw "colored” washrooms and that blacks had to sit at the back of the bus, I said to my hosts, ‘You are the same as Nazis!’  And they resented it and gave me all kinds of reasons. It was horrible! Oh, I got into a lot of trouble.”

    A king’s handshake and a lover’s look

    In 1947, during his first concert tour in Europe, Hautzig played a concert in Norway to benefit Nazi war victims. After the final concert, the King of Norway invited him and a few other artists in Hautzig's entourage to come see him at the palace.  Hautzig was honored, and wanted to get the protocol right.

    “So I called the embassy to ask ‘How do I talk to a king?’ ‘Well’ they said, ‘you must remember two things: you never shake hands and you never sit down.’ I come in [to the King’s presence]. There stands King Haakon with his outstretched hand, saying ‘How do you do?’ and pushes me into a chair," he said. "And I laughed. And I told him [what I’d been told], and he laughed too.”

    Hautzig met Esther, his future wife of 59 years, on the sea voyage home.  She was 16 years old, and seasick. For him, it was love at first sight. Her moment came later, during their courtship in New York. 

    “I played for her the G Minor Ballade of Chopin and she said, ‘Anybody who plays like that has to be good,’” recalled Hautzig, on the verge of tears.     

    Hautzig quickly became an international star, touring in distinctly non-Westernized locales as diverse as Kabul, Dhaka, Indonesia, Colombia and Suriname, often under the sponsorship of the U.S. State Department. He had unshakeable faith in the music’s universal appeal, saying “Beethoven and Chopin are as good for the Asians as for the Europeans as for the Jews as for the Gentiles.”

    Eleanor Roosevelt reassures the maestro’s wife

    On one tour of Japan, Hautzig performed 30 concerts in 27 days.  That feat caught the attention of former First Lady and humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt. She invited him to perform at a home for delinquent boys she supported and then to come with his wife to her home for the weekend.

    Hautzig was utterly charmed by Mrs. Roosevelt’s warmth and lack of affectation.  

    “And when we said goodbye, I said Mrs. R. - everybody called her Mrs. R. -  I have fallen in love with you! And I’m telling you this in front of my wife.’ And in her high voice, she took Esther by the hand and said ‘My dear, let me tell you that this time, you really have nothing to worry about!’” Mrs. Roosevelt was then in her seventies, and Mrs. Hautzig was in her 30s.

    In 1979, when U.S. President Jimmy Carter wanted to warm relations with China, he honored Hautzig by inviting him to tour the country as the first U.S. cultural ambassador there.  Twenty or so years later, Hautzig gave a special concert for Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

    “At the end of it, when I said goodbye I said ‘Mr. President, we are both young. I want to pray for you for the next 20 years, and then we’ll ask for more!’ He patted me on the back and said ‘God bless you.’"

    Hautzig taught piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for 27 years.  He is cautious in his assessment of the rising generation of professional musicians.

    “They play very loud and very fast and sometimes not very expressively. They are perfectly efficient and so on, but there is something missing [below the surface] with some of them.”

    But after a thoughtful pause and a sigh, he adds, with a half-smile “We’ll see what happens. They are good. But we were not bad either!”

    "Practice Makes Perfect"

    Walter Hautzig practices and prepares for a benefit concert at Lincoln Center:

     

     

    You May Like

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Ugandai
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    February 12, 2016 9:29 PM
    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video Refugees in Kenya Vie to Compete in Rio Olympics

    In Kenya, refugees from other African nations are training at a special camp and competing for a limited number of slots in this year's Rio Olympics under the flag of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Ngong, this is a first in Olympic history.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    New in Music Alley

    Soul Lounge: Sweet Honey in the Rocki
    || 0:00:00
    ...  
     
    X
    February 10, 2016 1:48 PM
    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B. The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.

    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B.   The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.