I was probably the least talented and least able piano student Piero Weiss ever had. He got stuck with me in 1969, when I was living on Staten Island. I had found an excellent piano teacher who lived just a few blocks from my house, but her husband got a job in Los Angeles and they moved away. Thinking cleverly for once, I wrote a letter to Jacob Lateiner, a pianist I greatly admired but did not yet know. (Later he became a friend.) I described my level of ability as honestly as I could and asked him if he could recommend a teacher who would take me. He recommended Piero Weiss.
Mr. Weiss, as I called him in those days (later we became Leslie and Piero, but only after I was no longer his student) must have found me a trial as a student. I had no hopes or ambitions of playing on anything near a professional level. As a young man with a wife and three children to raise, I was lucky if I could manage an hour a day to practice, and often I couldn’t. But I came for lessons faithfully every other week, even after I moved to upstate New York the following year. Although I was a poor student, I was otherwise well informed about music, already writing professional record reviews. So even though I was unable to put my knowledge into practice very well, I must have been interesting enough to keep him willing to teach me.
Piero actually taught me more about playing the piano than I had any right to know. I was unsatisfied with the sound I usually produced from the piano. He taught me to listen, assuring me that conscious attempts to alter my sound would probably not work but that concentration on listening would lead my fingers to produce something closer to what I wanted to hear. He also showed me some elements of the technique he had learned from his own teacher Isabella Vengerova, of which I remember the use of the wrists to produce changes in volume, especially strong accents.
One of the aspects of his teaching I particularly remember was the way he would help me select repertoire to study. He often made suggestions. When he asked if I ever had played Schubert and I said I hadn’t, he said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like Schubert?” “I love Schubert,” I replied. “That’s why I don’t want to play his music.” But he selected for me just the right Impromptu to fit my technique. When I mentioned something I would like to play, he would zip through the score from memory, no matter what it was, and tell me whether he thought I would be able to play it or not. I did surprise him once. I said I wanted to play Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 2, and he said I would not be able to handle the finale. I worked like a demon for two weeks and came back with that movement comfortably in hand. He was surprised, and gratified.
Piero frequently played for me at lessons, usually just brief excerpts to show me how something should go. He was obviously a superb pianist, and I asked him why he had not pursued a career as a performer. He told me he didn’t have the confidence. But he played me with pride the recording of his performance of the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto from a Lewissohn Stadium concert. And he gave me a duplicate copy of one of the two LPs he had made for the German record club Opus. I found the other one decades later.
After one lesson, we somehow got into a discussion of the Schumann Toccata. “I used to play that,” he told me. He was still sitting at his piano, and he turned to the keyboard and began to play. He played superbly, with great power and fluency and surprising accuracy. When he had finished, he looked at me and said, “I haven’t played that in twenty years.”
After I “mastered” the Schubert Impromptu to the best of my ability, I asked if he thought I could learn one of the Schubert Piano Sonatas. I was particularly interested in the little Sonata in A Minor, D. 784. He pointed out to me that the finale was beyond my ability, and then told me he hated to teach that piece anyway. He had once had a talented woman student who wanted to play that Sonata. He had told her that the last measures of the finale, in octaves, were very difficult, and that she could not play the movement any faster than she was able to play the octaves because it was improper to slow down for them and spoil the momentum of the music. When she played the Sonata for him, she did slow down for the octaves, and he told her she could not play the music like that. She became angry and never returned.
At one point I fell in love with the Brahms Intermezzo in B Flat, Op. 76, No. 4. Piero encouraged me to give it a try. It didn’t really suit my limited ability, and although I could get through the notes, I was not able to make the piece flow. He kept encouraging me to work on it, but I brought it back for several lessons and it never sounded right. At one lesson, after I lumbered through the piece, I told him I wanted to give it up. “No,” he said. “Work on it for two more weeks, then play it for me and then you can give it up.” I did my best, but the day before the lesson it still sounded lumpy. I came in and said I was ready to quit and didn’t want to play it even the one more time. He told me to try it anyway. I did, and amazingly, that time, I played it very well. When I finished, he said, sounding very surprised, “That was beautiful!” “I know,” I replied, just as surprised. I never played it again. Thinking about the experience later, I suspected that he was not surprised at all. He knew exactly how to push me–like the zen master who told a student in search of enlightenment that if he did not succeed within three days he should kill himself.
I had the opposite experience when I attempted a speedy Scarlatti Sonata, K. 545. I worked hard on it and came to my lesson confident that I would be able to play it quickly and accurately, and I did. When I finished, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Gerber, that is the worst thing you have ever played for me.” It sounded cruel, but he was right; I had just gone for speed and accuracy and forgotten that I was playing a piece of music. He helped me learn to shape the piece so that even at rapid tempo it still made musical sense.
One incident that occurred during our relationship made a lasting impression on me. After a lesson, Piero told me that he had learned about a German musicologist named Wolfgang Boetticher (not to be confused with the cellist and conductor Wolfgang Boettcher) who had been invited to speak at a conference in the U.S. on Robert Schumann. There was no doubting Boetticher’s credentials as a Schumann scholar; he had edited the Henle Urtext of Schumann’s piano music. But Piero also knew that during the Nazi era Boetticher had worked for the government to help locate and identify collections of music and music materials owned by Jews so they could be confiscated. Apparently he was also a member of the S.S. Piero passed elements of the story along to his friend Anthony Lewis, then a regular columnist for the New York Times. After Lewis wrote a column about Boetticher’s background, the invitation was withdrawn. Piero was very proud and pleased, and I learned something about the strength and conviction of this gentle man.
I had relatively little contact with Piero as musical scholar, although I still have my inscribed copy of the book of composers’ letters he edited. I did take a lesson once at Columbia University, where he was teaching, and I got to meet his office mate, Richard Taruskin, who later became a regular customer of my mail order record business. We had some conversations about Italian opera, a favorite topic of his and not one of mine. Although I had grown up in an opera household, and attended occasional Met Opera performances from the age of ten on, I had never become a real devotee of the opera. Piero did his best to convince me of the greatness of Verdi, but it has taken me until recent years to realize how right he was. I am still not convinced by his arguments in favor of Franz Liszt. Piero insisted that all of his music had to be taken seriously, but I still think Liszt wrote both masterpieces and bombastic trivia.
Eventually, not even Piero’s encouragement could keep me at the keyboard, and I reluctantly gave up my lessons, my piano study, and even my piano. But we remained in touch over the years, mostly with occasional phone calls. After he went to Baltimore to teach at Peabody, he told me with great pleasure that he had gone back to playing the piano in public and was performing at faculty recitals. Earlier this year, I spoke with him several times after our mutual friend Jacob Lateiner died, telling him that I was working on publishing a Lateiner memorial CD set. I last spoke with Piero a month before he died, telling him that publication of the Lateiner set was imminent. I regret that he never got to hear it.