Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski makes his US debut at Carnegie Hall with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra on November 17, performing Saint-Säens’ Piano Concerto No. 4, the New York premiere of his own piano concerto, and solo works of Chopin, Liszt, and Rubinstein.
TheNew York Times reported that “[n]o pianist has made such a sensational impression here since Anton Rubinstein.” Paderewski proceeded to storm New York over the next two and a half months with a barrage of performances—no fewer than 11 solo piano recitals, eight performances with orchestras, and numerous benefits and private appearances—all part of a grueling 117-concert American tour.
That three of those 11 solo recitals took place on the main stage of Carnegie’s Music Hall illustrates the interest concertgoers had in Paderewski: Before he arrived, no concert manager in New York City would have dreamed of booking any pianist into a 2,800-seat venue.
Paderewski’s first five New York recitals were given at the 1,500-seat Madison Square Garden concert hall. Yet a month into his time in the city, demand was so high that Steinway, the sponsor of his tour, took a chance and booked him into the much larger Carnegie Hall. By the time of his 11th and final New York recital at Carnegie Hall on January 30, 1892, seats had to be added on stage to accommodate all of his adoring fans.
As strange as it may seem in a world dominated today by pop culture, Paderewski was the Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or Justin Bieber of his day. Paderewski’s friend, Polish actress Helena Modjeska, wrote from New York to a friend in Warsaw: "Paderewski plays here with an enormous success. Women are crazy about him. Critics praise him without limits. The only two things they criticize is (sic) his performance of Beethoven and his too large of a mess of hair."
Although he was not universally beloved by music critics, most were also susceptible to Paderewski’s charms. In response to those who asked of Paderewski’s playing, “Is it art?” one critic responded with typical late 19th century hyperbole: “Away with all cynics! To perdition with the scoffers! Throw criticism to the dogs! Let us praise, applaud, and be merry, for to-morrow some other piano manufacturer will import a pianist who cannot play thus. Let us sound the loud timbrel of praise o’er Egypt’s dark sea of analysis. Great is Paderewski, and thank heaven for it!”
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