An all-time great caricature | AspenTimes.com

An all-time great caricature

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

The caricature published with this story captures the performance intensity of Samuel Lipman, Aspen Music Festival pianist for many seasons, publisher of The New Criterion, author of several books, and conservative arts critic while he was on the National Council on The Arts. Most in Aspen’s audiences did not know that Lipman had a perfectionist personality attuned to details that many musicians ignored.

As a stage manager, I was a backstage witness to Lipman’s performance rituals. Of all the festival performers I observed over thirteen years, he was most afflicted with pre-performance nervousness. There was good reason, even though Lipman had been a child prodigy and logged years of performances (with a break to earn a masters degree in political science from UC Berkeley),: he chose the summer’s most difficult pieces to play, often they were contemporary compositions that other pianists avoided.

When Lipman played, many festival pass holders bolted, not because they believed he was an inferior pianist, but because the piano solos he performed were far from their favorites. That meant most of the audience was comprised of the toughest critics: hundreds of piano students, many of whom were studying under Jeaneane Dowis, Lipman’s wife.

He booked more practice time on the festival Steinway than any other pianist. Lipman was especially cognizant of the peculiar Bayer-tent acoustics. He experimented with piano positioning, searching for the stage’s sweet spot. He could discern the difference if the piano was moved even six inches.

Lipman was the festival’s piano watchdog. He was often involved in choosing the Steinways that the festival leased for the summer. He maintained a continuous dialogue with Kurt Oppens, the piano technician, throughout the summer, to ensure the piano was in peak performance condition. Except when Dowis’ scheduled teaching sessions for her students on the Steinways, Lipman tried to prevent students from even touching a keyboard.

The Bayer tent was often so cold as to present a challenge for musicians’ hands. The backstage area was even colder. Lipman, waiting to perform, was the first to discover that down-filled ski gloves would keep his hands warm before going on stage. He chose oversized gloves that seemed to conspire with his black suit, short stature, and positioning of arms and hands to create the effect of a large penguin. His frantic pacing could have been enough exercise to keep warm blood flowing to his fingers, but that activity was entirely directed toward consuming nervous energy. No one dared talk to him as he mentally prepared for his performance; no doubt he conjured all possible pitfalls.

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Days before scheduled concerts found him curt, disrespectful, short-tempered and irrational. Nevertheless, after a concert Samuel Lipman was warm, witty and beaming with pride, the kind of musicianship pride that only a small circle of consummate performers understand.

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