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Cautionary Tales for Ambitious Young Musicians

Many classical pianists of the second half of the 20th century shone but briefly. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s David Patrick Stearns looks at a nearly lost generation of musicians.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald saying, that there are no second acts in American lives, would seem to be borne out by America's great pianists of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. All had careers that buckled in one way or another under the relentless pressure of concerts, recordings, and radio broadcasts.

Ruth Slenczynska was a world-famous child prodigy who was washed up at age 15. Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman lost the use of their right arms, possibly caused by over practicing. Byron Janis had arthritis. Eugene Istomin just faded. Van Cliburn was the most extraordinary casualty - he had supreme recognition, but it was too much of the same thing: the public demanded endless Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos. Furthermore, he believed that once he had developed his interpretation, he had hit the mark and aimed for the same one every time.

A Tchaikovsky passage in his 1958 recording sounded the same nine years later with slight adjustments for the live-concert setting in Amsterdam.

Eleven years after that, he was retiring, only in his early 50s. He wanted to be a normal person, to collect antiques, yak about the latest movies. His comebacks had limited artistic success.

Yet there were second acts. Former prodigy Slenczynska had several phases of an adult career, each one getting better, on into her 80s. Graffman ran the Curtis Institute. Leon Fleisher was perhaps the greatest artistic loss of all. He doggedly pursued cures for his disability - and found one. Finally, he has enjoyed roughly 12 years of limited two-handed playing. These are important cautionary tales for ambitious young musicians and a larger world that's all too eager to turn them into commodities.