Buffalo was lucky to forge a friendship with the late virtuoso pianist Earl Wild in the last years of his life. Wild, who died last year at 94, came here in 2001 to give a recital for the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, then returned to record CDs at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
He was accessible and outspoken. Interviewing him for The News, I got bold and asked his personal advice on a situation with my piano teacher.
"I want to play Liszt's transcription of Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde,' and he said, 'Oh, Mary, that's so self-indulgent," I complained. "What should I say?' "
"What's wrong with being self-indulgent?" retorted Wild.
Wild practiced what he preached. His repertoire was rich in Romantic and post-Romantic music. His own compositions, joyously florid, included Disney transcriptions and a sonata whimsically dedicated to Ricky Martin.
He stays true to himself, too, in this bewitching behemoth of a memoir.
On one hand, the book, which comes with a CD, could hardly be called spontaneous. Wild's longtime companion, Michael Rolland Davis -- who heads the Ivory Classics Foundation -- worked on transcribing and organizing it for years.
On the other hand, Wild's words appear to be blissfully unedited. That could have snarled the book's publication. A few years ago, the word was that it would be published by Carnegie Mellon. Now it has emerged independently. Reviews seem to have been scarce.
Reading it, I can guess why.
The length is not the problem. The length is great. It's like having Earl Wild as your roommate, a permanent presence in your life. Pianists will find a lot of advice about playing the piano. And anyone will appreciate the gossip.
You can open to any page and find something good. Too good, almost. Once, I tried reading a passage to a friend and had to stop and put my head down on the table, I was laughing so hard.
The problem would be that Wild is, well, wild.
Many newspapers won't want to go near this book. Wild takes all the New York Times critics to task, naming them by name, living and dead. He doesn't hate all of them, but still.
Universities will be angry, too. Wild taught at an array of them, bouncing from one to another. He cannot resist telling a good story, even an insignificant one. And so we hear about how at one college, they couldn't even show him his office, and how at Juilliard, his office-mate was Beveridge Webster, who used to drink too much and store dirty underwear in the studio.
You hear about the prim student at Penn State with her hair in a bun, who -- well, let's let Wild take up the story. "For her graduating thesis she created a roomful of pornographic art that completely shocked everyone," he writes. "It was so unusual and erotic that nobody in the school dared say a word."
Wild goes on to explain why the administration was afraid to speak up, and then describes the works in great detail. He was especially taken with a stained glass window. "It contained a double Ferris wheel of nude figures -- with a series of men ... revolving on one wheel, and nude figures of women on the other wheel. As the wheels came together in the center, the two figures met -- and coupled. I purchased that piece!"
Most outrageous, and entertaining, is Wild's irreverent behavior toward pianists practically deified in the music world.
He takes on Claudio Arrau. "Despite all that he has accomplished in his life, I still don't believe Arrau was ever truly a natural -- he was a good, well-studied artist."
And Alfred Brendel, whom he calls Al. "I cannot fathom musicians such as Brendel who talk about the old composers as if he had lunch with them yesterday!" Wild rails. (The book teems with exclamation points.) "He portrays himself as if he knows exactly what their intentions were.... Individuals like this are no better than cheap evangelists!
"In listening to many of Brendel's Beethoven recordings, I notice instances where he rolls chords and 'breaks' his hands, none of which is written in Beethoven's score. ... Don't do as I do, do as I say -- right, Al?"
Mitsuko Uchida, another fastidious pianist, is another target.
"When Uchida became co-director of the Marlboro summer music program with Richard Goode, she rather myopically stated in the New York Times, 'As long as I am co-director, there will not be one note of Tchaikovsky performed at Marlboro!' How ridiculous! With that perspective, she has set music back 100 years and ruined the attitudes of countless young musicians."
A few musical injustices were on Wild's mind.
"This moniker of being a 'technician' was placed on me as if being able to play fast, evenly and smoothly with a varied tonal palette was merely a mechanical treat -- as if I had no soul or didn't need to think about or be involved with the music I was performing!" Wild adds: "I feel the term 'profound' is a synonym for 'pedantic.' "
He devotes a chapter to slamming Isaac Stern. Stern, Wild writes, used his influence at Carnegie Hall to keep out many musicians, mostly American, who deserved to play there. Wild himself was snubbed, and had to present himself at the hall. He was not the only one angry. He tells how the violinist Mischa Elman would scream, in his high-pitched voice, "That Isaac Stern, that schmuck!"
That chapter is fascinating.
Overwhelmingly, though, the book is good-natured. Wild cheerily discusses conductors he worked with, times when he was down and out. It's fun to read about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he knew personally, and liked. And Toscanini, who he writes threw tantrums at the helm of the NBC Orchestra, where Wild played celeste.
"When he was not screaming obscenities, he would yell out things such as, 'You think I love to conduct? I hate to conduct, I hate it!' "
Wild's own musical pronouncements are airy.
"While bad kitsch is corny and foolish, good kitsch -- like many of the transcriptions I perform -- have (sic) wonderful tunes and ideas and can be very charming."
So generous is the book that the index is useful only to a point. Wild remembers parties friends held, concerts by people long forgotten, concerts that turned into fiascos and concerts of his own when things spun out of control.
An early chapter, "Born in the Crotch of McKinley Park," tells of his Pittsburgh childhood. His youthful works included a piano concerto and several ballets. His family was unusual. Wild's brother and he were so distant that once, after one concert, his brother had to introduce himself.
Wild's achievements can make you grow impatient with some of today's younger, high-profile pianists -- coddled in comparison, and overpraised. Here was a guy who really had the goods, and who still took the time to laugh and smell the roses.
It seems that he went gentle into that good night. Included at the end of the book -- right before five pages of naughty poetry -- is a list of things he liked to tell interviewers when asked how he would like to be remembered.
"You won't find me flying around with the angels, playing a harp!" he declares.
Wherever he is now, whatever he is doing, he is missed.
Mary Kunz Goldman is The News' Classical Music Critic and is currently writing a biography of Leonard Pennario.
A Walk on the Wild Side: A Memoir By Virtuoso Pianist Earl Wild
The Ivory Classics Foundation886 pages, $45.95