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Coffee Break at the Coffee Bean – sitting down with Pearl Kaufman

Pearl Kaufman and daughters

Pearl Kaufman and daughters

I recently met up with Pearl Kaufman at a Coffee Bean on the corner of Santa Monica and Beverly Glen Blvds in West Los Angeles. Pearl Kaufman is a pianist who has worked with many of the great names of 20th century music, premiering works by Berio, Ginastera, and Shapero, and appearing on the legendary CBS recordings of Stravinsky and Berg, as well as playing on iconic film scores, like Chinatown and Dr. Zhivago. She performed in the legendary Monday Evening Concerts which are still going strong, and at the UCLA concerts put on at Royce Hall by Franz Waxman.

PK: The Russians were interesting when they came. I remember a composer, Karayev[1], who was very talented. I thought Khrennikov was less talented but his minders loved him.

GW: In the histories I think Khrennikov is often the villain, the front man for the Union of Soviet Composers. What was he like as a person?[2]

PK: He wanted to be loved by everybody and he wanted to be loved by the orchestra. And he was jovial but very dogmatic at the same time: everything should be exactly on time.

[Pearl played for Stravinsky on some of the legendary recordings he and Robert Craft made of his music in Hollywood in the 1960s.]

PK: I think I mentioned how I got to record with him in the first place?

GW: Yes, at the Academy of Scoring Arts.

PK: The pianist with the LA Philharmonic took ill suddenly and they called my teacher John Crown at USC, University of Southern California, to see if he could play Petrushka and he said, ‘I’m busy but I have a wonderful student who does contemporary music very well.’ I had been doing Monday Evening Concerts with Lawrence Morton[3].

And then Mr Crown took me into his office and he said, ‘Pearl, in ten days you’re going to play Petrushka with Igor Stravinsky.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘This is not a joke. They’re going to deliver the music and a week from Friday night you’re going to play it.’ So I’ve got to tell you, I practised day and night and I learned it and we performed it. Then, the following week, I got a call that we were going to record it. And before the recording Mr Stravinsky came over and said, ‘Did you play Petrushka?’ And I swear, I didn’t know what he was going to say. He said, ‘Vonderrful, vonderful.’ I said, ‘Oh thank you.’ Then we went to record it, and you know the piano part, the Russian Dance? He listens to it, and comes over and says, ‘Did you put the soft pedal on?’ I said, ‘No.’ It’s loud! He said, ‘Look.’ And he shows me in the score – soft pedal, which I hate. Because every other recording I’ve heard, it’s bright – not mine!

GW: And he wanted it muffled?

PK: He wanted that muffled. But not everything else that I played. Do you know where the Legion Hall on Highland is? Post 43? It’s on the west side above Franklin.

GW: Yes, it’s a historic building. I saw something about it.

[In fact, I had. A distinctive ‘Egyptian Revival-Moroccan Deco’ building built in 1929, it’s renowned for its acoustic. Beside Stravinsky’s recordings of his own works, Bruno Walter made legendary recordings of Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart there.]

PK: The sound there was wonderful for a large orchestra. And I remember Petrushka. They brought in a Bösendorfer but they didn’t have the piece that hides the extra notes so I had no topography of the piano. I was going crazy until I lifted my hands and said, ‘I can’t play on this piano.’ So we took a 20-minute break and they went to a piano store and got the cover.


Pearl Kaufman with Stravinsky during recording of The Flood, 1962.

GW: Did Stravinsky ever talk about Russia?

PK: Not generally, but one time I was having lunch with my girlfriend on Bedford in Beverly Hills. Stravinsky’s doctor worked out of a two-storey building on the east side of the street. And I saw Mrs Stravinsky drive up in their cadillac. Mr Stravinsky was struggling to get out. So I ran out of the restaurant and said, ‘Mr Stravinsky, can I help you?’ He said, ‘Oh thank you, thank you,’ but the elevator was broken. So I carried him up. He was very frail. He said to me, ‘I have to go to Russia.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Vera and Bob want me to go to Russia. I don’t want to go.’ So I said, ‘Well, don’t go.’ He said ‘I have to.’

[In the end, in 1962, Stravinsky went. Despite Soviet criticism of his work over the years, including by Khrennikov, it was a moving return to the land of his birth.]

GW: And Bob was Robert Craft, his assistant –

PK: Exactly. I know all of this because I became friendly with both Bob and Mr Stravinsky because he really liked my playing on Petrushka. I spent a lot of time with them. I was the ‘designated driver’. Mr Stravinsky would have his flask of Scotch with him.

GW: And did they talk music in the backseat?

PK: No, but every time I was over at the Stravinskys’ house in West Hollywood, he and Bob would be looking at another Gesualdo.

GW: So Bob really was a very strong musical influence on him?

PK: Oh my gosh, when we would rehearse we wouldn’t rehearse usually with Mr Stravinsky. Bob would do the rehearsal and Stravinsky would come in the last part for the recording. You know, Bob was so accurate.

GW: So Stravinsky was a good-natured guy?

PK: I thought so. I liked him tremendously.

GW: And you met Berio?

PK: I had a Mercedes and I took him to Dave Raksin’s[4] house in the Valley[5] for dinner. He wanted to meet Pete Rugolo[6]. That was the only person in this whole town that he wanted to meet – Pete Rugolo, who was Stan Kenton’s arranger and would do arrangements for Hank Mancini[7]. Pete Rugolo asked him to play Mack the Knife from sheet music and he only played the chords that were on the music,

GW: So you think he didn’t know ‘Mack the Knife’ at all?

PK: No, not at the time. I remember that night vividly because he insisted on driving my car back to Beverly Hills, through the mountain. He did not stop for anything. Thank God this was still in the 60s and there weren’t that many cars on the road, but I thought it was my death.

GW: I find it interesting that you played with the great film composers as well.

PK: I was known as a ‘red light’ musician. Do you know what that is? You can play as soon as the music is put in front of you, as soon as the record light comes on. André Previn wrote a virtual harpsichord concerto for Dead Ringer (1964). And the action for harpsichord is not the same as piano. Boy, did I have to ‘red light’ that!

But the reason I played… Obviously I was a good pianist but the reason it started was because everybody wanted to get close to Stravinsky and, you know, they had me on their date. Not David Raksin actually. David Raksin knew me from another composer. But then it started – Franz Waxman, Elmer Bernstein…

GW: Do you think people like Franz Waxman ever regretted not being in their old milieu of Europe where they would have been successful opera and symphonic composers?

PK: He didn’t. But do you know who Bronislaw Kaper was?

GW: Yes.

[I knew him as the composer of the theme for The FBI, the 1960s TV series, and recently got to know his music for 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty, the Brando film.[8]]

PK: Miles Davis, when I met him in New York, told me that Bronislaw (or Bronek as I called him) was a great composer. And, of course, Miles made Bronek a millionaire with his recording of ‘On Green Dolphin Street’. Well, Bronek was a very close friend of mine. And one of my dearest friends used to entertain Bronek and Isaac Stern, but also Jack Benny and George Burns. But Bronek was a close friend. He got my husband into karate. He was a swordsman as well as a wonderful composer. I met Artur Rubinstein through Bronek, I got great seats at the Philharmonic through Bronek –

GW: And so he, kind of, yearned for the old life?

PK: Well, he didn’t yearn for it but let’s say that’s the only music he listened to.

GW: You played on the Jerry Goldsmith score for Chinatown. And there’s a scene where Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake, is going down into the LA River and there’s all this prepared piano.

PK: Yes.

GW: And it’s very distinctive because here is prepared piano which was new then.

PK: Oh but I think Jerry went to every Monday Evening concert. It wasn’t new to anybody who went to concerts. But it was probably very new –

GW: For film music.

PK: I remember Paul Glass. He became a professor in Switzerland, a wonderful composer.[9] Anyway, Paul’s first score for a major studio was Lady in a Cage[10] which was James Caan’s first credited feature. It’s now a cult film. We also used some prepared piano in some scenes – this is way before Jerry. By the way, that was the only kind of music that I could improvise – contemporary music.

GW: Because I remember you saying that Chinatown was a wonderful score –

PK: Oh god, great score![11]

GW: Do you ever find the actors and directors appreciating the score as much as maybe they should?

PK: No.

GW: Because I get the impression Spielberg –

PK: Oh, that’s a different thing. Absolutely. You’re talking about working with John Williams. I did some two-piano with John and then he got a big break where he wrote a main title and then he met some directors who became very interested in him. He was a favourite of Stan Wilson,[12] and everybody at Universal was agog over his talent.

GW: And he’s still going strong. We’re told that it’s a disadvantage to have an immediately recognisable style in movies because you’re really writing a wide range and yet a lot of these guys had distinctive styles.

PK: Absolutely. Somebody will want John because of his style. You know, there are many wonderful composers writing for film, but I’ll never forget when Bronek told me about – I forgot what score it was and it was at MGM – but the director said, ‘Oh for instance, I’d like something like [Pearl hums the Volga Boatman]’. So the composer tried to do something like that. And then they said, ‘Make it more like it’ and he did. And then they asked for it to be more like it. So he finally put in –

GW: The Volga Boatman

PK: Exactly.

[It’s a great cautionary tale about too much individuality, but the overriding impression I come away with after an all-too-short coffee break with Pearl Kaufman (and anecdotes about Berio, Stravinsky. Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams…) is that Los Angeles was, and probably still is, a terrific and vital melting pot for all sorts of music.]

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015


[1] Kara Karayev or Gara Garayev (1918-1982) was an Azerbaijani composer of the Soviet era.

[2] Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). The Anti-Formalist, Zhdanov, made Khrennikov secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers in 1948. Khrennikov and Karayev visited Los Angeles for the first International Los Angeles Music Festival in 1961.

[3] Lawrence Morton (1904-1987), a longtime champion of contemporary music in Los Angeles and a former director of the Ojai Festival. He became director of the Evenings on the Roof concerts in 1954, renaming them the Monday Evening Concerts.

[4] David Raksin (1913-2004). A New York Times obituary described him as the ‘Grandfather of Film Music’. With over 100 film scores and 300 television scores to his credit, he was best known for the haunting theme to Laura.

[5] The San Fernando Valley, a 670 km2 area north of the Santa Monica Mountains, was opened up for urban development largely in the 1940s and 50s.

[6] Pete Rugolo (1915-2011). Working principally for Stan Kenton, Rugolo provided arrangements and original compositions that blurred the boundaries between jazz and contemporary classical music.

[7] Stan Kenton (1911-1979) was, according to his New York Times obituary, ‘the last major jazzband leader to emerge from the Big Band era of 1935-45’, but Kenton’s was also one of the most innovative bands. He called his music ‘progressive jazz’. Arthur Fiedler, of the Boston Pops, regarded him as ‘the most important link between jazz and the classics’. ‘Hank’ Mancini was Henry Mancini (1924-94), best known for Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther theme.

[8] Bronislaw Kaper (1902-1983)

[9] Paul Glass (born 1934)

[10] 1964.

[11] Goldsmith’s was the second score. There was also an earlier score by Phillip Lambro, which is now available on CD. It’s known as Los Angeles, 1937. Goldsmith’s score wasn’t ready in time for the trailer and Lambro allowed use of his score as long as he retained mastering and publishing rights. Paramount Studios agreed as long as he changed the title.

[12] Stan Wilson (1917-1970), ‘one of the most prolific collaborators in Hollywood’, was head of creative activities for MCA Inc.’s Review Studios, a predecessor of NBC Television, related to NBC Universal.