What drives a man to remain among the very best in the world at what he does, long after most folks have retired (or expired)? Those who were fortunate enough to hear master American pianist Earl Wild last Tuesday evening at the Sottile Theatre can probably answer that question better than most.
Wild, who turns 90 this month, was here for College of Charleston’s International Piano Series, part of his warm-up for the pending Carnegie Hall birthday recital that will end his tour.
Considered one of the world’s reigning “super-virtuosos” for well over half a century, Wild is renowned for his ability to make even the most difficult piano music sound like child’s play. And he lived up to his reputation here, making no concessions to his age in this program. A bit shaky on his feet, he needed some help getting to the piano — but not once he got there.
Wild set an almost spiritual tone for the evening, opening with his own searching transcription of a limpid Adagio theme by Alessandro Marcello. It was the perfect prelude to his eloquent account of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in D Major. He found particular depth and poetry in the unspeakably sad, slow movement.Then it was on to the great romantic composer-pianists that Wild built his career on: Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin’s finest bravura showpieces.
Who of us, at 90, will have the kind of physical strength, stamina, reflexes, and dexterity that we had at 30 — or 50, or even 70? And this music demands all of the above. Compared to his past standards, Wild’s playing has perhaps lost a bit of its former power and accuracy. There were fleeting moments that sounded labored, and maybe even a small memory slip or two. But there’s no denying that Wild’s playing still casts the same wondrous spell it always has. He continues to enchant his listeners with vivid musical imagery, interpretive nobility, and exquisite dynamic subtlety. Even with an overplayed warhorse like Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Wild drew a collective sigh from his audience as he played the opening upward runs with an astonishing blend of blazing speed and soft delicacy.
Afterward, too exhausted to climb the Sottile staircase for the reception in his honor, Wild held brief court in the lobby, charming a trio of star-struck piano students who had come all the way from Tennessee to hear him. He was also overheard speaking of his desire to keep performing “until the end.”
And therein lies the answer to our opening question. When, at 90, you can still do your thing better than most people half your age and hold a hall full of happy listeners in awe-stricken thrall, are you not still leading a purposeful and well-lived life? Is this not good reason to struggle to keep doing it until the end?
May your wish be granted, Mr. Wild. We’ll all be richer for it.