Duncan Cumming will deliver his talk on the life of pianist Frank Glazer at 6:15 p.m. Friday; Glazer will perform at 7:30 p.m. Both events will take place in the Olin Arts Center Concert Hall at Bates College, 75 Russell St. Admission is free, but separate tickets are required for the talk and for the concert. For more information, call 786-6135 or e-mail [email protected]
LEWISTON — Duncan Cumming considered leaving the summer music program at Bates College after two days. He was 17 and baseball was calling.
Cumming had been playing piano since he was 5 and he had ability — he played in a jazz band and composed the music for a high school play — but his teenage interests lay elsewhere. On a summer day in 1986, he almost walked away from the music program.
That was the day world-renowned pianist Frank Glazer walked in.
“I remember seeing him for the first time and his smile and his just sort of warmth of personality and generosity of spirit. Just right away,” Cumming said. “And that afternoon, I believe, I had my first lesson with him and he was always patient, always kind as a piano teacher, but also very helpful to me in terms of technique. We worked together through that program and then beyond.”
On Friday, decades after Glazer became Cumming’s mentor, the two will appear at Bates College together. Cumming, now 40 and an assistant professor of music at the University at Albany, will speak about Glazer’s life and musical career in a talk titled “Frank Glazer: Fountain of Youth.”
Glazer, who is 95 and has spent the past 30 years as artist-in-residence at Bates, will perform his latest concert, the final installment of his season-long review of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.
It’s a tribute to a man whose professional career has so far spanned 75 years — and whose mentorship has guided hundreds of teenagers and young adults.
“I enjoyed them so much as people as well as musicians. They were, in effect, our children,” Glazer said, then joked, “We got them at a good age.”
Glazer began playing the piano at age 4, plucking “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and other tunes from the family piano under his sister’s instruction. At 17, he began studying with legendary pianist Artur Schnabel in Berlin and at 21 gave his first professional concert in New York.
According to Bates College, one New York Post writer at the time credited Glazer with “the fury of an unleashed bull” and a “barrage of pianistic dynamite.”
It’s an energy he’s maintained. During one recent afternoon, he drew a sonata from the 63-year-old black Steinway grand piano that sits in his Topsham living room, his fingers powerful and fearless as they skated over the keys. Behind those keys: a streak of nicks along the fall board, spots where his fingernails struck the wood over and over throughout six decades of practice.
“These are the scars of battle,” he said.
Since his debut, Glazer has played with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he’s played at Carnegie Hall several times. He’s performed in more than 25 countries. He’s written, narrated and performed on his own television shows for NBC stations and recorded extensively, some of those recordings now available on iTunes.
At 65, an age when most people are considering retirement, Glazer joined Bates College as an artist-in-residence, a flexible position that’s part performing, part lecturing.
“When I have something to say, I say it. If I don’t, I keep quiet,” he said.
Glazer didn’t want to teach piano at Bates, which already had its own piano teachers. But he did want to be a mentor.
“I said if a student needs me, even if that student has no talent or experience, I’ll be glad to work with them because I can always teach them something,” Glazer said. “Because I always appreciated the fact that when I had a need it was met. And I didn’t appreciate it when it wasn’t. So I made up my mind that if he or she just has to have me, then I would do it no matter what.”
For Cumming, who was a Wiscasset High School student when he met Glazer, that meant getting lessons from the world-renowned pianist for free. It was a life-changing opportunity.
“He offered to keep teaching me through the rest of the summer and, actually, through my senior year, to finish this study of technique that he had started with me in that summer program,” Cumming said.
Glazer’s dedication to music and to his student influenced Cumming. He took two years off after high school to focus on piano with Glazer, then enrolled in Bates. Through college, graduate school and the beginnings of a career, Glazer remained Cumming’s inspiration.
“I remember my brother saying to me that we should all be so lucky to meet someone in whatever field we have an interest in,” Cumming said. “He wasn’t a pianist, but he said, ‘I would like to meet my Frank Glazer.'”
Cumming considers Glazer like a second father to him, and so inspirational that Cumming chose to write about him for his doctoral thesis. That thesis turned into a biography, “The Fountain of Youth: The Artistry of Frank Glazer,” which was published last year.
“But more kept happening (in Glazer’s life),” Cumming said. “It’s almost like I need an appendix and an appendix and an appendix to really keep it up to date.”
The latest update would include the completion of Glazer’s Beethoven series at Bates — a season’s worth of concerts showcasing all 32 of the composer’s sonatas, some of them so challenging that even Glazer had never performed them before. Friday’s concert will feature the last three.
Glazer believes he may be the oldest pianist to perform all 32 in one season.
“It’s do or die,” he said. “At my age, I figured I’d better do.”
Glazer credits his longevity to several things: the quadruple bypass surgery he had nine years ago that he said “really rejuvenated me,” the unique piano technique he developed as a young man to reduce muscle strain and keep the strength and flexibility in his hands, and his 54-year marriage, which ended in 2006 when his wife died.
“We were like a team,” he said. “When I had her, I didn’t need anybody else. Now that I don’t have her, I need everybody else.”
He can’t imagine ever leaving the piano for good.
“The word retirement has never been in my vocabulary,” Glazer said. “Everybody else has it, but I don’t have it. They think, ‘Well, at a certain age you have to retire.’ I don’t know of any performer who retires unless he has to.”