Billy Crystal didn’t win a Grammy last night — he was nominated for Best Musical Theater Album for his work on “Mr. Saturday Night” — but while introducing an all-star performance by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Chris Stapleton, he took the opportunity to urge viewers to listen to a Jewish musical legend: Vladimir Horowitz.
Crystal reminisced about the days of his youth and growing up surrounded by the music industry, when he would go around town with his uncle, Commodore Records founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Milt Gabler. “I got to shake hands with Vladimir Horowitz!” Crystal told the crowd, then urging them to “google him!”
And hopefully, Google they did, because the 25-time (!) Grammy Award winning virtuoso pianist is definitely worth knowing.
Born in Kiev in 1903, Horowitz is widely considered to be one of the greatest classical pianists of all time. In fact, if you grew up in a home where classical music was revered, you’ve probably heard a Horowitz recording or two in your lifetime, perhaps his iconic rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto 3.
Horowitz’s talent was remarked in his youth by legendary Russian composed Alexander Scriabin. He attended the Kiev music conservatory and started preforming solo concerts in his teens. But Horowitz knew that a more lucrative and glamorous career awaited him in the west. With some money in his shoes, Horowitz left the Soviet Union in 1925 — it would be decades before he would return.
His made his U.S. debut in Carnegie Hall in 1928, and quickly enchanted audiences with his magnetic stage presence. The New York Times said his performance was like a “tornado unleashed from the steppes.”
In 1933 he married Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of New York Philharmonic conductor Arturo Toscanini. It was Wanda who isolated with him during his periods of depression — periods that sometimes lasted several years, in which he didn’t preform concerts. But Horowitz would always wind up returning to the stage; the crowds adored him and the exuberant energy he brought to the piano.
“When I’m on the stage I feel I’m a king,” Horowitz told “60 Minutes” in 1975. The septuagenerian also said that he was still learning things all the time. “I prove to myself that I can do it. If I cannot do it, I will not be on the stage.” Horowitz would only schedule his concerts on Sundays at 4, because he felt that often his audiences were too tired on a weeknight and would fall asleep.
One of his Grammy awards was for the New York Philharmonic’s “Concert of the Century,” a benefit concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein that he participated in along with other great Jewish virtuosos like Yehudi Menuhin and Issac Stern.
In 1986, with hopes that the Cold War was coming to an end, Horowitz returned to Russia for the first time in over 60 years and gave an incredible and historic concert in Moscow. When Horowitz played music by Russian composers, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, many in the crowd burst into tears.
His last performance took place just four days before his death in 1986. In 1990, he received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.
Horowitz is a true classical music legend, and we’re pretty grateful to Billy Crystal for reminding us of him. May his memory be a blessing.