Primary tabs

Misha Dichter Rides Again

February 16, 2010

In late 2006, Misha Dichter was visiting his wife’s family in Rio when he sat down at the piano to practice Brahms’ Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10. A simple chord in the second measure stopped him cold. The renowned pianist couldn’t stretch the fingers on his right hand to make the interval of a major sixth. He panicked.

“I have big hands. Normally I can stretch a twelfth,” says Dichter, whose mastery of some of the most demanding pieces in the piano repertoire — including the virtuoso works of Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov — fueled his international reputation. When he couldn’t play that easy chord, he knew something was seriously wrong.

Dichter was diagnosed with Dupuytren’s contracture, a disease that causes the connective tissue under the palm of the hand to contract and thicken, bending the fingers inward. He was all too familiar with it. His father suffered from the ailment, which is largely hereditary, and had two bungled surgeries that left his fingers badly contorted. Because of that painful memory, Dichter resisted surgery — until he came to the conclusion that if he wanted to keep playing, he would have to go under the knife.

“We all Google our afflictions,” says the witty pianist, on the phone from his Manhattan home. He learned from his online research that there’s a point of no return with Dupuytren’s when even surgery is no longer an option. He underwent surgery to remove the damaged tissue on his right hand in March of 2007. After two months of physical therapy, he’d recovered enough to play a benefit concert in St. Louis. But it took a great deal more time and effort before the pianist was playing again at his peak.

Now, after three years, “my playing is very close to what it used to be, 99 percent,” says Dichter, who this week gives his first California performances since his ordeal. He plays a recital tomorrow night (February 17) at Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium — opening the program with the Brahms Ballade that he couldn’t play that alarming day in Rio — and then Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday night.

Right after the Stanford performance, Dichter will speak about Dupuytren’s, his surgery and recovery with Dr. Amy Ladd, a Stanford professor of medicine who heads the university’s Chase Hand & Upper Limb Center.

Tchaikovsky With Nine Fingers A natural storyteller, Dichter describes how he coped with the ailment that curled the baby finger of his right hand and crippled his playing. Before he decided to go the surgical route, he worked out alternative fingerings for pieces so he could play them without that fifth digit.

“At one point, I could play the Tchaikovsky (First Piano Concerto) with nine fingers,” says Dichter, who made his recording debut playing that piece with the Boston Symphony in 1966. He'd shot to international prominence that year after winning the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Disenchanted with the doctor who’d advised a wait-and-see approach to his affliction, Dichter called another hand surgeon for a second opinion. The music he heard when he was put on hold was — Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which at that point he could no longer play.

“It was a very bad movie script,” Dichter says slyly. The concerto is considered a warhorse, no big deal, he adds. “Now it is a big deal to me again. It’s all been rethought.”

The doctor who gave Dichter that second opinion was Scott Wolfe, the head of hand surgery at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “He basically said, ‘We can lick this sucker.’ I liked his attitude,” the pianist says. “I never entertained the option of never playing again. I didn’t let that become a consideration. Because of Wolfe, who said I had a really good shot of clearing this up, I went with the optimistic flow.”

Still, he had plenty of bad nights. After the surgery, when the outcome remained in question, Dichter, who was scheduled to play that warhorse Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony a few months later, had a recurring nightmare: “The orchestra is tuning up, I walk out onstage, look down, and I don’t have a right hand.” He pauses. “Now I do.”

Dichter got that hand going again with the help of physical therapist Caryl Johnson, a former pianist at the Julliard School of Music in New York (where Dichter studied) who specializes in musicians. After the stitches were removed, she only let him practice for ten minutes a day, in two five-minute sessions. That was nearly impossible for an artist who practices at least five hours a day.

If he played for six minutes, his wife, Cipa, a noted pianist with whom he performs works for four hands, would burst into the room and demand that he stop. “With Caryl and my wife on my case, I was in good hands,” says Dichter, who limited himself for several weeks to playing a little Mozart or Schubert. “No Brahms or Liszt. No heavy chordal stuff. My hand was barely being held together.”

Dichter took the occasion to play the Bach violin chaconne that Brahms set for piano, for the left hand only. “I never lost touch with the instrument. That was very important,” says the pianist, who had to re-think aspects of playing that he’d taken for granted.

“Even to this day, I’m thinking, ‘How did I use to do that? Oh, that feels right.’ I’m finding again what was natural and explaining it to my brain.”

Back in the Saddle Dichter, who listens to jazz piano genius Art Tatum for pleasure, is working a lot. After Sacramento, he flies to Europe for recitals and orchestral concerts in Zagreb and Zurich. In June, he joins Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony for a season-closing performance of Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety.” Then he and Cipa return to the Ravinia Festival, performing Rachmaninov’s Second Suite and Symphonic Dances for two pianos. In 2008, the couple released a widely praised recording of the complete Mozart piano works for four hands. They’re considering recording the Schubert and Dvořák works for two pianos next.

At Stanford, Dichter's program will include Schubert’s Sonata in A Minor, Op 143, Bartók’s 15 Hungarian Peasant Songs, and Liszt’s Funérailles and The Funeral Gondola No. 2.

“I love this program, because parts of it reflects other parts of it,” Dichter says. The ferocious double octaves at the end of the Schubert sonata, which closes the first half of the concert, inspired the famous left-hand octaves in the Funerailles, featured after intermission. “Liszt was quite of aware of Schubert’s music,” says the pianist, who likes to imagine there’s a perfect listener who comes knowing nothing, hears everything, and make the connections — the Schubert reflected in the Liszt, the atonality of The Funeral Gondola echoed in the Bartók. “I love the cross references.”

After what he’s been through, Dichter has an even great appreciation of music.

“Music has always meant everything to me,” he says. “I’m happily surprised now when things sound good on a daily basis. It used to be so natural that I wasn’t surprised when things went well. Every day gives me a special pleasure because of all the work that’s gone into it. It gives me a great sense of fulfillment.”

Asked how his playing has changed, the pianist replies: “I don’t want to pass judgment on my musicianship. But I think there’s a certain depth that must have come about through all this soul-searching.”

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.