Updated: Jan 22
M4Arts artist Thomas Pandolfi talks to us about his early career milestones, winning the Juilliard Concerto Competition, his dream-like experience of studying with legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz and teaching today to a new generation of pianists.
Life at Julliard
Hi maestro Pandolfi, thank you for your time. Let's start from the beginning of your career as a young pianist. Can you tell us about your days studying at Juilliard? Sure. I can remember exactly how it was. My typical Juilliard Day was:
7am - alarm goes off, first thought that pops in head: gotta get to the elevator, and get that great 4th floor practice room with the 2 Steinways side by side.
8am - building doors unlocked, mad dash to elevators. Obtaining Rm. 420 is now a life or death matter.
8:02am - mission accomplished!
This was the story of every morning, weekends included for those of us who wanted to secure the best pianos, and most spacious rooms. Once secured, then the “underground practice room plan” was mapped out and guaranteed for the rest of the day.
It went something like this: I’d practice 2 hours, go to my 10am class, eat a quick lunch, all while a friend with an opposite class schedule “kept” the room, while I was gone. Then time to trade places - be back by 1pm, practice 4 hours; go to another class, while another friend “kept” the room - grab an even quicker dinner, and then back to practice another 4 hours. Now there’s a typical pianist’s day at Juilliard!
That's a lot of practice hours that paid off for you. You won the prestigious Julliard Concerto Competition. Can you tell us more about this milestone?
Sure. At the time, I was in between teachers. Sascha Gorodnitzki had recently passed away, and my lessons with Adele Marcus we’re getting fewer and fewer due to her declining health, so I was playing regularly for famed Hungarian virtuoso and Bartok protege, Gyorgy Sandor.
One day I arrived at my lesson, and was promptly told that I should enter the next upcoming competition. “What’s the repertoire?”, I asked. “Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody,“ (also known as New York Rhapsody) was Sandor’s reply, “and I think it would be a perfect fit for your style.”
Well, I certainly knew Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F, but had no idea about this so called 2nd Rhapsody. My curiosity overtook me, and I rushed to the Juilliard library, found a recording of Oscar Levant playing it, with Morton Gould and the NY Philharmonic. Oh yeah! This was most definitely quintessential Gershwin, and I wanted to procure the score immediately.
With the competition being only about 3 weeks away, I had a lot of work to do. Practicing incessantly, Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata, Schubert’s late 959 A Major Sonata, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Bach’s D Minor Toccata together with this Gershwin Rhapsody became my constant companions. Friends of mine kept stopping by the practice rooms. “Thomas, there’s a party tonight, you gotta come!”. “No, I really have to practice, but maybe we could run thru the Rhapsody with 2 pianos in a few days?”
I convinced the security guards to let me stay and practice until 11pm instead of the usual 10 pm cut off time, and I asked the best accompanist at Juilliard to run thru the Rhapsody together with 2 pianos. After one rehearsal, he looked over at me and said, “Man, you are a true, true virtuoso!” Nobody compliments anybody at a school like Juilliard, so I was feeling pretty good.
I ended up winning the competition. Famed pop pianist and vocalist Bobby Short was in attendance, and ran up to me exclaiming, “You are an “absolute master pianist!”
Meeting Morton Gould
You had your debut at 21 at the Lincoln Center. Is this when you met composer, conductor and pianist Morton Gould?
Yes. The date after my Lincoln Center Debut with then student conductor Andreas Delfs and The Juilliard Orchestra, I was summoned out of class, called down to the Dean’s office, and told to go over to the offices of ASCAP. Guess who was in the audience the previous evening at my debut?
Legendary Maestro Morton Gould.
Yes, he was “so impressed with the young man who performed the Gershwin”, that he called Juilliard and proclaimed he wanted to meet me!
I went over to his office and was warmly welcomed by the Maestro. He said, “Young man, your performance last night was the greatest Gershwin performance I have heard since hearing the composer play it himself!”
All I could think was “Wow! This man standing in front of me was the very same one who conducted and recorded this very work with Oscar Levant and the NY Phil, that I first heard in recording at the Juilliard Library — and now he’s telling me that he loved MY performance!” He went on to encourage me to perform more and more Gershwin — told me I had a great future ahead of me, and spent time telling me about his time and experiences with the Gershwins, Oscar Levant and others. A true and unforgettable highlight in my young musical life!
Studying with legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz
You studied with many legendary pianists but one particularly left a mark on you as a pianist, the legend Vladimir Horowitz. How did you get to meet the great Horowitz?
I remember that at that time at Julliard we were studying rate Russian piano literature. One day during class, piano literature professor David Dubal asked me "Mr. Pandolfi, what do you have for us today?”
“Third Sonata by Dmitri Kabalevsky, composed in 1946 and premiered by Vladimir Horowitz”, I replied without hesitation.
“Excellent - come up and play all of it for us” said Dubal.
Following the 15 min work, the class discussed every aspect of the piece as well as Dmitri Kabalevsky’s life, compositional style and influences.
As I was about to make my way out of the classroom Professore Dubal summoned me “Mr. Pandolfi, may I see you for a few moments?”
He whispered: “How would you like to play that for the Maestro ... as in Maestro Horowitz?”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!?“
“Oh no - quite serious. I’ll call you and give you specific instructions.”
And call he did. We were to meet on the corner outside Juilliard at precisely midnight, take a taxi to the upper East side between 5th and Madison Ave. where “the Maestro” resided with his wife, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, daughter of the famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Upon arrival, we were ushered in by the butler, and up a winding staircase, where the Maestro was engrossed in an episode of Angela Lansbury’s “Murder She Wrote.“ He was almost childlike in his delight and obsession with finding out “whodunnit”. We had to wait in the foyer, which of course wasn’t great for the anxiety or my hands getting cold! But being the compulsive practicer that I was, my hands were almost always warm, and I felt quite prepared - quite honestly, I was probably somewhat distracted that I was actually in the home of one of my all time pianistic idols - a god of the instrument!
Thomas Pandolfi performing F. Chopin's "Heroique" Polonaise op. 53 in A flat major, one of Horowitz' favourite Chopin compositions
Finally we were ushered in, and surely enough, this was really the place. There was the very backdrop I had seen on some of the LP records I treasured, that’s the actual Steinway, the very room where “he” studies and practices. I was in awe.
He seemed to know all about me, and recited from memory quite a few detailed facts which Professor Dubal had submitted to him prior. When he asked for me to play something, of course I couldn’t resist to perform the Kabalevsky that Horowitz actually had the honor of premiering. Upon completion, he said some quite flattering things, and said in his thick Russian accent that he’d like for me to come again and bring more repertoire on subsequent visits.
He informed me that I had the 4 T’s which he considered essential elements for pianistic success: talent, tone, temperament and technique.
Then it was his turn to sit and play, which he did - Scriabin in particular. He asked, “Do you want me to show you how I practice octaves?” He talked of the importance of playing deep into the keys - standing behind me, leaning his entire weight into my hands so that I could feel the sensation of pressure, the type of projection one needs to play in a large concert hall - a penetrating projection even at the softest volume levels.
Around 3am, the butler brought in some coffee and cake, and Horowitz gossiped about many pianists from the past - Cortot , Rachmaninov, Schnabel - it was amusing and fascinating all at once. Around 4am, the evening came to an end. I ended up visiting Horowitz several more times, and played Brahms, Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt for him. Shortly after that, he passed away, and it all seemed like a dream.
Teaching to a new generation of pianists
As M4Arts faculty member you teach to ambitious pianists both in Washington DC and around the world. What are some of your practice and interpretation tips?
There are a couple of stories that sum up two of the best practice tips for me.
Once Abram Chasins went to visit the legendary Rachmaninov. As he was approaching the front door, Chasins heard piano sounds coming from within. He paused, and pondered what the master was practicing as it was at an incredibly slow pace, and hardly recognizable. Finally it dawned on him that Rachmaninov was practicing Chopin’s Etude, Op. 25, No. 6, Double Thirds. He asked the Maestro about this upon entrance, and Rachmaninov stressed the importance of slow practice, strong fingers, playing deep into the keys, yet with completely relaxed wrists and upper body, allowing every phrase to be heard and every tone analyzed, all the while building and strengthening security.
Ferruccio Busoni would return from concerts and practice further that very same evening, polishing and refining phrasing, pedaling and continually reinforcing concepts of harmonic structure and clarity of architectural form.
If these supreme artists had to practice in this manner, how much more we must take their example and cultivate the highest artistic standard.
If you had to pick favourite piano recordings of all times, which ones would you choose?
Well, let's start with Rachmaninov performing some of his solo works and his complete piano concerti with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stowkowski / Eugene Ormandy.
Then I love equally Jorge Bolet's Live in Concert Carnegie Hall (Feb, 1974), the great Claudio Arrau's Chopin Preludes (Live 1960) and Josef Hoffman performing Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4.
What's your favourite recording?
I really like my recording of the MacDowell's Piano Concerto No 2 that I performed with George Enescu Philharmonic in Bucharest, Romania. You can see it in this YouTube video.
What books do you recommend to students as a must read?
There are quite a few, but my top three would be:
Harold Schonberg’s The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present
Artur Rubinstein, My Young Years
Ignace Jan Paderewski's Memoirs
Thank you very much maestro Pandolfi. We hope to see you soon on stage.
Pleasure, as always.
Thomas Pandolfi's Student Testimonials
We could not fit all the positive testimonials that The M Institute for The Arts has received from Thomas Pandolfi's students, testimony of his great work as a piano pedagogue.
Here are you can read some testimonials highlighting why pianists in Washington DC and around the world love to study with maestro Pandolfi.
In only a few months of instruction, I believe that I have grown musically and technically and that I have gained the confidence with his help to continue my studies and make further progress.
I have been studying with Tom Pandolfi for a number of years, and I can’t imagine that there is a better teacher anywhere!!
Thomas Pandolfi is a consummate artist not only from a concert performance perspective, but also from his innate ability and deep-seated desire to impart what he knows to others whose goal is to become fulfilled musicians. His ability to guide a student’s approach comes from a wealth of knowledge and experience, having been a chosen student of masters Vladimir Horowitz, Adele Marcus, and composer Morton Gould at the Juilliard School.
Mr. Pandofi is a great teacher. Besides being an amazing musician, he is an active listener and a great mentor. During my time studying with him, I not only learned a lot about piano techniques, but also how to integrate my interpretation, personality, and feeling into the music I play. I highly recommend Mr. Pandofi's master classes.
Not only is Thomas a wonderful pianist, and can play just about anything with the same astounding flair, but he is a fantastic teacher. This is a rare combination to have such a virtuoso teach so well and have the necessary patience and skills to be a great educator. Thomas always tells me the story and the reason behind every single passage in the music I am playing. This is the best way to remember things, regardless of subject!
What a great experience! I am preparing a Beethoven sonata for violin & piano and decided to play at the M Institute masterclass with Thomas Pandolfi. His suggestions were right on point, while he praised the positives in my playing, he also focused fixing technical issues, like octave legato techniques, articulation and an effective use of the pedal. Thanks to his instruction, now my playing feels a lot more confident and musical. Thank you, Thomas!
Mr. Pandolfi is the most innovative and progressive piano instructor I have ever had. He has an incredible ability to synthesize the performance world to the pedagogical world [...] I have witnessed his influence and pedagogy on my peers and every person I have met that has studied with him comes out a superior player, performer, historian, and musician."
I studied piano with Thomas Pandolfi for seven years. He is a marvelous teacher. Not only does he instruct his students in the skills and technique of mastering a composition, but he also teaches them the life of the composer and the history of the period in which the composer lived. Thomas has a tremendous repertoire and he stresses to each student the style of the composition they are studying. Tom shares his love of music with everyone who enters his studio. That love is a gift for a lifetime!
Louise A. Cleveland
Maestro Thomas Pandolfi is a brilliant pianist and a very dedicated and inspiring teacher with fundamental knowledge in classical music. The highest culture of performing art, astonishing technical mastery, absolutely magic touch with bold, wide-ranging musical imagination that displayed an assertive, direct, richly satisfying style makes him absolutely unique and inimitable musician, who goes to the heart of the music.
More About Thomas Pandolfi
Thomas Pandolfi is one of the leading pianists of our time, hailed a “phenomenon.” He began his career early on while at The Juilliard School (BM & MM) where the young prodigy caught the influential ear of Vladimir Horowitz, who would become his mentor, and legendary composer, Morton Gould. Since then he has been an audience favorite, selling out the world’s most prestigious stages, including Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Strathmore, The Kennedy Center, Kiev Opera House, Bucharest’s Romanian Athenaeum, London’s Cadogan Hall, and many others.
DC Metro Arts calls him, “exhilarating… a rare mix of technical accuracy and cool confidence.” “His artistry and technique were simply astonishing,” said the Metropolitan Arts Reviews. The Washington Post boasted he is a “master of both the grand gesture and the sensual line… Pandolfi's large-scale pianism seemed under tight control yet in no way muted the passion of his performance… projected with an exquisite sense of lyrical gesture.” “A standout among today's young pianists... His virtuosity and strength… might have had some believing that Liszt himself had taken over the keyboard,” said the Asheville Citizen-Times. “The mastery of the scores, the precision of the playing, and the finesse of the expression were all simply spectacular. It was a truly bravura performance, both in the virtuosic and in the reflective pieces, yet one completely without gratuitous exaggerated display,” acclaimed The Boston Musical Intelligencer.
In addition to being recognized as one of the greatest interpreters of the Polish masters such as Chopin, Paderewski, and Godowsky, this versatile pianist has received accolades from everything from Bach to Gershwin, with Morton Gould saying, “It’s the finest performance of Gershwin I have heard since the composer himself.” His original and virtuosic transcriptions of popular works, such as West Side Story and Phantom of the Opera, are one-of-kind, jaw-dropping, and dramatic encores that keep audiences of all ages returning to his performances again and again.
Mr. Pandolfi is a Steinway Artist and has recorded for Steinway Spirio. Mr. Pandolfi’s performances have been broadcast by PBS, WETA (Washington, DC), WQXR (NYC), WRCJ (Detroit), DCN TV (China), The Sound (DC), and many others worldwide. During his 2019-2020 season, he completed a 20-state tour of the USA, his fourth tour in China, third tour of the UK, and seventh tour of Romania and Moldova.
Born in Washington, DC into a musical family, Pandolfi began his studies with his father and continued on with principle teachers Sasha Gorodnitzki , Adele Marcus, Gyorgy Sandor. He holds a BM and MM from The Juilliard School. Maestro Pandolfi is available for recitals, concertos, and masterclasses.
To learn more about Thomas Pandolfi visit www.thomaspandolfi.com