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Balanchine the pianist

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Yes, ‘compared to whom’ is an important consideration here. Moira Shearer, who was raised in a musical family and I think played the piano herself, although I’d have to double check, said that during rehearsals of ‘Ballet Imperial’ Balanchine was not satisfied with how the pianist in rehearsal was playing it, and he sat down at the instrument himself and demonstrated just how he wanted the passage done. Shearer was greatly impressed. Perhaps Milberg meant something like that. (Too bad Tallchief wasn't pressed to elaborate.)

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I was also struck by what Milberg Fisher said in contrast to what Tallchief said. It's true that we have to consider the source of those remarks, (including Shearer). So we should also consider that:

1-Balanchine studied piano and composition -- and graduated -- at the Imperial Academy,

2-He commissioned "The 4 Temperaments" for himself to play with friends who were string players, and

3-He earned some cash playing in cinemas accompanying silent films after leaving the Imperial Academy.

I'm sure others can think of other facts to bolster both sides. Anyone have Taper, etc. handy?

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David Daniel said that Balanchine could reduce a Xennakis orchestra score at sight at the piano. I doubt this was quite literally true, because even Xennakis piano solo pieces such as 'Herma' are not playable at sight; and even virtuoso pianists would rarely be able to play a Xennakis orchestra score so that it could be recognized (and the hearers would not know whether they were recognizing anything anyway, since Xennakis is not music you can remember until you master it many times over. However, there are, of course, some conductors who could do this). He could have meant that Balanchine could play the music of 'Pythoprakta' after hearing it a good number of times and then using the score to produce some sort of reasonable transcription. But even that would mean a considerable achievement, and I haven't any reason to doubt it. As we know, he was very specific with what he wanted with his rehearsal pianists.

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I would guess that Tallchief based her opinion of Balanchine as pianist on the four-handed piano they played together. Good/great musicianship can be different from good/great piano playing. I don't think Tallchief ever said he was a bad musician.

Very true--although there can be good musicianship without great piano technique, there cannot really be real piano technique, except the mechanical thing, without good musicianship.

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It could also be that judgments about Balanchine not being such a good pianist were based on hearing playing when he was out of practice. One of my finest teachers, Ilona Kabos, didn't bother to keep in practice as she got old, but she could still manage to get across musical ideas by doing 'sketch playing', with plenty of wrong notes and fudge, and Balanchine probably did some of this. He was obviously doing something related to this when he demonstrated ballet sometimes, e.g., the story Villella tells about showing him Apollo. Villella would have meant that Balanchine was able to embody Apollo, not that he would thereby be taking it out on the stage--otherwise, no need for Villella's younger body to do it.

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According to Barbara Milberg, "he was a damn good pianist." According to Maria Tallchief, "George was NOT a good pianist." Both these quotes were posted in recent days. (Thanks, Violin Concerto.) Any other opinions?

Autobiographical and biographical statements without authentication from a number of verifiable sources and where expert knowledge is not exhibited, do not constitute historical fact. When dealing with any legend the power of the legend can push writers to make extreme to statements that are difficult for later researchers to fully substantiate. In books on ballet history there are very few that do not contain infelicitious statements of downright errors.

The legend has always been in my lifetime that Mr. Balanchine(G.B)

as a good pianist having studied music at the Petrograd Conservatoire.

He came from a family where his father Meliton Balanchivadze studied under Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and would become to be considered as a distinguished Georgian opera composer and G.B 's mother was a pianist. Both G.B and his sister Tamar were given piano lessons by Alice Kuntsel. The year following his graduation from the former Imperial Theatre Ballet School he entered the Petrograd Conservatoire where he studied for almost four years until 1923.

G.B's brother Andrei (d 1983) was a noted Georgian composer who composed a ballet in which his son Tsiskara danced. Another of Andrei's son's Jarji is a pianist.

It has been recorded that the Balanchivadze family were descended from medieval troubadors so perhaps music in the family was genetic, if that is possible.

(Edited for brevity and spelling of name)

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Thank you so much for that infomation-rich posting. I feel like a novice!

I forgot a quote that I had read in a 1995 paper by Cara Murphy on George Balanchine, "Vera Kostrovitskaya (known as a pedagogue and author of a well known book on ballet technique), a fellow student, said that "He could never pass with indifference any musical instrument. The minute he came down to our floor of the school the sounds of a piano would be heard...Sometimes, in the evening, we would secretly climb the stairs to listen to Balanchivadze playing Liszt, Chopin or Beethoven in the boy's quarters..."

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