Artur Rubinstein

Fighting the one-two punch

ArtsWatch Weekly: Amid twin crises, arts and social awareness mix and meld and come together

IT’S BEEN A WEEK TO PICK OURSELVES UP, DUST OURSELVES OFF, START ALL OVER AGAIN: The one-two punch of pandemic and racial injustice has kept the culture on the ropes even as some of the contenders take a premature victory lap. The United States has solidified its dubious distinction as the epicenter of the global coronavirus crisis: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in the face of a rudderless national response is the closest thing we have to a national leader on the issue, warns that if Americans don’t get serious about the threat we could be facing 100,000 new cases a day. While the nation gradually and sometimes not so gradually reopens, the numbers of infections and deaths have spiked. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has ordered that people wear masks in indoor public settings in every county, a directive that many, even those assigned to enforce the law, feel free to flout. 

The designer Milton Glaser’s final project. 

Culturally, in the past week the nation’s lost two towering figures. The great comedian Carl Reiner, who with the likes of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks helped shape a stream of antic and sometimes subversively open American popular comedy, died at 98. And Milton Glaser, the graphic artist/designer/entrepreneur/American hybrid, died on his 91st birthday. Glaser’s touch was all over the culture, from book and album covers to concert posters to restaurant designs to the iconic “I (Heart) NY” logo that’s been copied by cities from here to the farther moons of Pluto, or so it sometimes seems. At the time of his death he was working on a new cultural connector to bridge the divides of troubled times: a distinctive image of the word “Together.”


Listening Room: Rubinstein & Friends

On virtual tour with the legendary pianist, composer Villa-Lobos, artist Portinari, and a tantalizing side adventure on the way to Mt. Hood

In the 1920s, pianist Artur Rubinstein left Europe for a concert tour of the United States. One of his two West Coast engagements was to perform with orchestra in Portland. Rubinstein had agreed with the conductor that he would play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4. Two weeks before the concert, Rubinstein received a telegram which read, “The committee would be grateful if you would agree to play the Rubinstein D minor concerto instead of the Beethoven.”  Artur Rubinstein had no family relationship to the composer of that concerto (Anton Rubinstein). Annoyed, the pianist sent back a telegram that read, “I would rather you called me Artur von Beethoven for the occasion.”

Despite the mild controversy, the concert took place as planned. Rubinstein relates the following anecdote in the second volume of his memoir, My Many Years: After the concert, a local businessman and his wife invited Rubinstein for dinner. Rubinstein invited the woman for lunch the next day, before he would catch an evening train to travel east. The woman accepted, and offered to drive him to their mountain house afterwards, noting the fabulous views. The steep climb followed a road with tall piles of snow on the sides. Oregonians would assume it was the road to Mt. Hood that today is part of U.S. 26.

In time the conversation became evocative, and Rubinstein leaned over and gave the woman a kiss. The distraction led to the car swerving and falling onto its side in a snow bank. They emerged from the car with difficulty to assess their predicament. The woman insisted that Rubinstein run down the hill on the snow-covered road to a gas station with a service garage to get help. (The service station perhaps was in Sandy). It was a three-hour ordeal, but the car was put back on the road, and they drove back into Portland in time for Rubinstein to catch his train, and the woman to make it home with reputation intact.

Rubinstein at the keyboard as a young man, ca. 1906. U.S. Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

Rubinstein – born in 1887 in Lodz, Poland, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and settled in Paris by 1904 – generally is ranked among the greatest pianists of all time, and Portland was only one of many stops in his globe-trotting years. He noted at the beginning of My Many Years that the upheavals of World War I played a significant role in establishing his career. He was invited to San Sebastian, Spain, for an engagement to replace a French pianist who had enlisted in the war, and was still in Spain when sovereign borders in Europe closed due to the hostilities. That provided him the opportunity of many engagements when other pianists in Europe could not travel across national borders.