classical music hijinks

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.