- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

NEW YORK — What does a pianist do after losing full use of the right hand and going to 18 doctors and getting 18 diagnoses?
In Gary Graffman's case, commission works for the left hand.
This season, Mr. Graffman has performed two world premieres of left-handed concertos Daron Hagen's "Seven Last Words" with the New Mexico Symphony and Richard Danielpour's Piano Concerto No. 3 "Zodiac Variations" with the National Symphony in Washington. Tomorrow, he premieres a third "Concierto para la mano izquierda" by Luis Prado at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center.
In the 1950s, Mr. Graffman was among the so-called Outstanding Young American Pianists a group that included Van Cliburn, Leon Fleisher and Eugene Istomin and was to take over from the generation of Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolf Serkin. At age 7, he started studying with Isabelle Vengerova of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music; at 20, he won the Leventritt Award; later, he studied with Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Serkin.
He would perform 100 concerts a year during a 30-year period.
Then in the late 1970s, he noticed that his right ring finger and pinkie would collapse when he reached for notes. There was nothing sudden and no pain, Mr. Graffman recalls during an interview in his stately apartment overlooking Carnegie Hall.
"It was little by little. I was having problems with certain [chord configurations], usually in Brahms. It was hard to realize that something was going wrong. It just seemed like, 'Well it's a difficult [passage], and I'm getting older,'" says the 73-year-old pianist, who shakes hands with a firm grip despite the ailment.
His wife, Naomi, says he was reluctant to have it examined.
"'They'll think I'm crazy,'" she remembers him saying. "I said, 'But you have to go to the doctor.' I thought it was maybe some calcium spur. He said, 'I don't want to,' but he finally did. And they did think he was crazy. And then came the great trek to the [18] different doctors [with the 18 diagnoses] which in retrospect is one of the most ridiculous experiences anybody could ever have."
Mr. Graffman gave up performing and tried numerous remedies and pursued other interests. He studied Asian art history, learned some Mandarin and made many trips to the Orient. The fruits of this passion fill his apartment, which has an impressive collection of Asian art (in addition to side-by-side Steinway grand pianos).
His medical problem eventually was diagnosed as a focal dystonia, in which the brain seems to get confused by the nerve impulses and sends out the wrong signals to an appendage.
"When he realized he wasn't dying, he felt much better about it because they were all convinced he had some terminal illness," Naomi Graffman says.
Still, there is no cure, and no treatment has worked for him.
During his performing hiatus, Mr. Graffman started to teach at Curtis and at the Manhattan School of Music and wrote the memoir "I Really Should Be Practicing." Then in 1986, he became director of Curtis (and has been its president since 1995).
Meantime, he started to learn the left-handed repertoire, as did his friend and colleague Mr. Fleisher, who also suffered from a right-hand problem but has recovered and can play from the two-handed repertoire.
The most famous piece for left-handed piano is a concerto by Maurice Ravel commissioned by Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein. A pianist's right hand is more susceptible to injury because it generally plays the melody and is used more. In Mr. Wittgenstein's case, he lost his right hand while fighting on the Russian front during World War I.
Mr. Wittgenstein also commissioned similar works by Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, better known for his Hollywood scores, also wrote a concerto for him.
There are several hundred other works for left hand, including a transcription of Bach's solo violin "Chaconne" by Johannes Brahms for Clara Schumann after she strained her right hand. However, Mr. Graffman says he found the repertoire confining.
In recent years, Ned Rorem composed a piece for him. In 1996, William Bolcom composed a concerto for Mr. Graffman and Mr. Fleisher, "Gaea," in which Mr. Graffman performed the first movement, Mr. Fleisher the second, and both played the third.
Next season, Mr. Graffman is scheduled to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra a left-handed concerto written for him by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
The piece being premiered with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in early June gives Mr. Graffman more than the opportunity to display his single-handed dexterity. Mr. Prado, the composer, graduated from Curtis. The conductor is Ignat Solzhenitsyn, the son of the Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a former piano student of Mr. Graffman's.
"As I'm getting older, more and more conductors that I play with, I signed their diplomas," Mr. Graffman says.

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