Peter Serkin, 72, who took his training at the conservative Curtis Institute of Music and cut a wholly original path through the classical piano scene, died Saturday, Feb. 1, at home in Red Hook, N.Y., of pancreatic cancer, his manager said.
As a player, programmer, and stage personality, there was no one else like Mr. Serkin. He put his career on hold to find spiritual enlightenment, and simultaneously embraced the period-instrument and avant-garde repertoire, with an originality of interpretation that was seen by some as an act of artistic rebellion. The scion of an illustrious family of old-world musicians — his father was pianist and Curtis teacher/director Rudolf Serkin, his grandfather violinist Adolf Busch — Mr. Serkin was decidedly of the new world.
He performed with orchestras worldwide, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and English Chamber Orchestra, and had been slated to play a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society all-Bach recital with violinist Pamela Frank this March.
In classical music’s atmosphere of strict performance tradition and unforgiving proscription, Mr. Serkin offered reality-bending experiences. In the pianist’s last recital here, at the Kimmel in January 2019, this critic found Mr. Serkin to be a performer "who likes to rearrange time and space around him.”
In that Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, his Bach Goldberg Variations unfurled one revelation after another with “a bone-dry sound in the left hand here, a violent start to a variation there. In various spots he emulated organ or harpsichord. He didn’t shy from emotion, making variations strident, searching, pastoral, or fragile.”
Born in New York, Peter Adolf Serkin was a prodigy cultivated in the artistically related hothouses of Curtis and the Marlboro Music Festival, the Vermont summer retreat cofounded by his grandfather and father along with others. He entered Curtis at age 11, and studied with Mieczyslaw Horszowski; Lee Luvisi; and his father, who had a top-tier performing career and would later become head of the school.
It was Rudolf Serkin who helped to introduce him to Philadelphia Orchestra audiences several years before the boy graduated from Curtis. Together, they performed the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365, in 1961, when Peter Serkin was 14.
They repeated the feat a few months later at Carnegie Hall with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, with the younger Serkin showing “considerable intensity of feeling in passages when he played alone,” according to a New York Times review.
He graduated from Curtis in 1964 and won a Grammy in 1966 for most promising new classical recording artist, and set off on a major career.
“Peter Serkin has the instincts of a rebel and a non-conformist,” declared New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg of the pianist’s first full-scale New York recital at age 20 in 1967.
He struck many as a flower child, too, at least for a time. In 1973, with violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry, and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, he founded TASHI, whose groovy album covers turned on many a listener to Messiaen, Webern, and Takemitsu.
He had a special focus on new music, “and yet he played the normal classical repertoire beautifully,” said former Curtis director Gary Graffman. “He played Beethoven marvelously, wonderfully, and chamber music and Brahms and Mozart.”
He continued to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra regularly from the 1960s through 2008 — in Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Takemitsu, Brahms, and Peter Lieberson. He performed with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society more than a dozen times starting in 1989.
Over the years, he taught at Curtis, the Juilliard School, Yale University, and Bard College. As with performing, Mr. Serkin brought an unusually thoughtful approach to teaching.
“He didn’t tell me how something should be played,” said pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who studied with him for two years at Juilliard and one more privately. “Usually what would happen is, I would play the piece and then there’d be a kind of long silence while he was thinking about it. And then he would start asking questions. And I had the sense that he was just as interested in the music as I was, that he was just as curious about trying to find out how to approach the piece.”
She remembers one lesson in Bach where he asked her to write down a list of different adjectives, and then had her try out the same passage in the style of each adjective.
“He taught me a lot about the variety of touch and timbre that is possible,” she said. “There was a lot of exploration of what he referred to as differentiation — that a passage is not about being played smoothly. A passage is about showing the contour and the shape of it depending on the harmonic shape or the melodic or rhythmic shape, and that the contour shows by varying the articulation and the touch and the sound.”
If his pedigree made him destined for classical music, Mr. Serkin took some detours. He sometimes dropped out of performing in the late 1960s and early ’70s for matters more spiritual and philosophical in Mexico, Tibet, India, Morocco, and elsewhere.
He held a lifelong fascination for certain pieces, like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He was an early adopter when the period-instrument movement came along, recording Beethoven and Schubert on a fortepiano in the early 1980s.
One of his first concerts in Philadelphia was at Curtis, where, as Curtis piano professor Eleanor Sokoloff remembers it, he played Schumann.
“He was a child, really, it was so gorgeous, he was 12 or 13,” said Sokoloff, who has taught at Curtis for more than eight decades and continues to teach there at age 105. “It was the way it was played, like a person in his late 80s reminiscing about life."