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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Donald Isler

Donald Isler is the founder of KASP Records whose releases include performances of music by Beethoven, Schubert, and little known but important works of Ludwig Spohr and Artur Schnabel. David Dubal's Master Series event at the 2008 International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College, entitled "The Legacy of Artur Schnabel," included Donald who was the first to record Schnabel's "Dance Suite."

Donald Isler's recording of music of Abram Chasins will be included on David Dubal's radio program, "Reflections from the Keyboard." Check out WQXR - 96.3 FM on Wednesday, September 10, 2008 at 10:00 PM Eastern.

New York Pianist visited Donald on the upper west side to talk about KASP records, the classics, and teaching.

NYP: You have produced an impressive discography of classic repertory on KASP. I'd like to hear about your beginnings and the people who have helped you in your career.

DI: I grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx. I went to the High School of Music and Arts and then to Manhattan School of Music. I got my bachelor's and master's degrees there. My first teacher was a remarkable lady who's still alive and lives in Washington, D.C. Her name is Sina Berlinski. She and her husband, Herman, were Cortot students. I started with her when I was eight and when I was eleven Herman got a job in Washington, D.C., so they moved. I'm still in touch with her. She's way into her nineties. In fact I had a note from her the other day. She has the most gorgeous handwriting. You should see it. When I get a letter from her, it reminds me of the handwriting that was all over my notebook.

My last year and a half in high school was with Bruce Hungerford who was one of the great artists of the 20th Century, but he never got the recognition he should have. At the Manhattan School of Music I studied first with Robert Goldsand and then the rest of my bachelor's and master's studies were with Constance Keene.

NYP: So many pianists studied with Constance Keene. What drew all of you to her?

DI: She was first of all an inspiring pianist. I knew of her and her reputation before I knew her. I had already heard her recordings of Rachmaninoff. She was such an incredible artist, I was sort of in awe of her. I certainly learned a lot from her.

After I had my master's degree, I went back to Bruce Hungerford again, who was also a family friend. I was with him for another year and a half until he was killed in an accident with most of his family.

After that I studied on and off for a year with Lillian Kallir, Claude Frank's late wife. Then I studied with Zenon Fishbein who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and whom I've actually known since I was a kid, but somehow I never ended up studying with him before that. My father, when I was a kid, went back to playing the piano and took lessons with him. I relearned something a year or two ago, Chopin's "Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise," and he was very creative about certain things. I was looking at the score and thought, "Wow, those are some fabulous fingerings he gave me."

The last person I studied with was a wonderful lady named Eleanor Hancock who died a few years ago. Her husband was also a pianist and a recording engineer named David Hancock. She was a student of Dorothy Taubman, who is especially known for teaching technique.

This story of having all these teachers reminds me of an occasion from twenty years ago. I visited a friend who is a pianist from Russia. He grew up with a totally different influence from here. We decided to get together and play records of people we admired. So I had Keene records, I had Hungerford records, I had Horzowski records. Later, I went to a student of mine and I didn't want to leave all these LPs in the car, so I took them in and showed them to my student. And I said, "See? This lady was my teacher, this man was my teacher." And maybe I had a Mozart recording and I said, "And he was my teacher, too." I thought she'd be really impressed. What was her reaction? "How come you needed so many teachers?"

NYP: What does the name of your recording label, KASP, stand for?

DI: When I did my first recording, which included music of Schnabel and Beethoven, I had to have a name for the label. I was trying to think of something different and creative. The first name that came to me was Tikva which means hope in Hebrew, but that had already been used by a religious organization. I came up with KASP by making an acronym formed from the initials of a bunch of friends of mine who get together to celebrate their birthdays. The "P" is for Patrych, that's Joe my recording engineer. I have two friends whose last names start with "K", one's name starts with an "A", one with an "S". I have an "I," but I was too modest to include that. That's where KASP comes from.

NYP: One of the pianists in your label's catalog is Adrian Aeschbacher. That is a new name for me.

DI: Aeschbacher was a very talented pianist who came to Berlin in 1932 when he was 20 to study with Schnabel. At that time he lived for a while in my grandparents' home. My father was a 10-year-old then and took lessons with him and Aeschbacher was a great influence on my father's life long love of music, which he still has. Aeschbacher is not really known here because he never played here. I remember visiting him in Zurich when I was a teenager. I never heard the Davidsbündlertänze played better than that Aeschbacher recording.

NYP: You obviously love the traditional repertory and feature it prominently in your releases.

DI: I feel these pieces should still be played in concerts. People should get to hear them still. I always assumed I would record the last several Beethoven sonatas. I did the last three. That's the idiom I knew like a native language.

Somebody did write a review asking what's the point of doing this stuff again. It's hard to answer. It's been done so many times by so many people. Yet there are pieces I have a strong feeling about, and I have something to say, and I was determined to do them, and fortunately I was able to record those pieces.

On the other hand, the husband of my teacher Sina Berlinski was a composer, Herman Berlinski, and of course composers have a hard time getting attention for their music. She would complain that my tastes were too conservative. In fact, she asked me a few years ago when she was already in her nineties and I was telling her I was doing a program of music mostly from the 19th century, "May I ask you when you are going to enter the 20th century?" Now we were in the 21st!

So, I do get her point more, certainly in terms of going to concerts. I'm more interested if there is some original programming that I haven't heard a lot of times before.

I do like to do things that are different. For example, my recording of Artur Schnabel's "Dance Suite" was the first that was ever done. I'm also working with the family that is publishing all of his music. I've worked on proofreading the score of the "Dance Suite," and I'm writing a preface for that edition. It's sort of exciting because it's the only publication of a score that I've played that I'm involved in. And the Louis Spohr Sonata. As far as I know, nobody else has done a commercial recording of that yet.

I also write on Classical Music Guide. It has two forums devoted to music. One is called Classical Chatterbox which is discussions about anything to do with classical music. Another contains reviews of concerts. In an additional forum called The Pub people can discuss everything other than classical music, which is largely politics.

NYP: You also teach piano.

DI: Yes, I teach privately in Westchester.

NYP: You spoke of your own musical upbringing. Is it harder these days for children to acquire one? Are kids still learning the piano?

DI: Interesting question. Kids have too may activities. Many of them are over-scheduled. Many of them do sports. Sports are great, but schedules conflict. The piano is the hardest. You really have to make a concerted effort on a regular, daily basis and it's hard with all of these other activities. Many of them are very good students so there is a lot of pressure from school work, and computers, and all sorts of other things. It's hard for kids to find the time to spend.

I like to interview everybody before they become my student. Usually the kid takes it more seriously than the parents. It's very funny. People worry about the influence of teachers. Parents are much more influential. If the parent doesn't take it seriously, most kids won't do that well. There are some people who are very good who take it very seriously, but I think there are increasing challenges to get as many people to do that as one would like. Probably that situation used to be better than it is now because of all of these distractions. Still, I have wonderful, talented students.

NYP: Do you have studio functions like repertory classes, studio recitals?

DI: Sort of. Some of my students used to be from a man named Joel Rosen who was a Juilliard graduate. He started a piano school without walls. In other words, he would hire teachers to go out and have the lessons, and then once a month the kids would do a theory class at his home. He had at one time a large number of teachers working and later less so. I had some of my students through him and some through others and also taught at many, many music schools. After he passed away, his wife still lives in the house, so I do the monthly class for my students in his studio, which is wonderful because it's like a mini-auditorium. The class I do includes music appreciation. I do some of what he did and I add my own personal things.

I feel partly the problem is that classical music is not part of the upbringing of an educated person. There are lots of people who are highly educated in all different professions who know who Mozart and Beethoven are, but they were not brought up listening to them. My family was particularly interested in music. I was brought up listening to music, but many people aren't. So I want my students to hear great music played by great people. I bring in my boom box and we have a class every month of the school year from October through June. Kids like birthdays, so I do a class devoted to a composer or great pianist or a group who has birthdays that month. For example, in October I'll play them CDs of Cherkassky, Horowitz, and music of Liszt. In November, I'll play performances of Bruce Hungerford and Earl Wild. December has to be Beethoven. Plus we do some theory, and music literacy. Then at the end of the class, the kids who have something prepared perform in an informal setting. I don't have an end of year recital, but I do this eight times a year.

I come from a musical family. My parents played music, my grandparents played music. I grew up listening to it, and loved it, and I think you're missing something if you don't have it.

Godowsky: Alt Wien (Old Vienna)


Donald Isler on the web: KASP Records
Article portrait photography: Jan La Salle

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