Schuyler Chapin remembered the day vividly.
The great but reclusive pianist Vladimir Horowitz had agreed to give a concert at Carnegie Hall, after an absence of nearly 13 years. The tickets sold out in hours. Now the only problem was, would he show up?
Horowitz notoriously had stage fright. That’s why he’d quit playing in front of audiences. A few lucky students came to his house for private recitals, but that was all. On the day of his scheduled return, in May 1965, New York City’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Schuyler Chapin, found himself standing at the entrance of Carnegie, waiting. He and a mob of spectators all wondered the same thing: where was Horowitz? He was an hour late. The great impresario Sol Hurok asked Chapin in his thick Russian accent, “What are you going to say to the people when he doesn’t show up?”
Chapin shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
For surely Horowitz would not show up. Everyone knew that. He was pathologically insecure, self-doubting. This was the man who’d known Rachmaninoff—whose own performances of the formidable Third Piano Concerto blew away the man who’d written it. Horowitz had played for heads of state, been the toast of kings and queens, and he was afraid of going on stage in front of people.
What are you going to say to the people when he doesn’t show up?
That was anybody’s guess.
Suddenly there was pandemonium in the streets. Horowitz’s limo had arrived and he emerged, waving and shaking hands with everyone who’d waited out front. Turns out he’d gotten caught in his own traffic jam!
A digression here for younger readers: once upon a time, not that long ago, classical musicians were BIG. They didn’t appear on PBS with their hands out. Many of them—Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas—were rock stars. The first rock stars. Rock stars before there were rock stars. And probably the biggest among them was Horowitz.
He got inside the hall but was still nervous. The crowd’s expectations had reached a frenzy. Chapin says:
Suddenly the stage lights go on and the house lights go off. And physically backstage the tension was as if one was putting one’s hand in an electric socket. And I brought him downstairs and he got to the stage of the stage and he turned around and he faced me, hesitant…And I thought, “Oh no, what am I going to do now?”
… And I turned him around and put my hand in the lower part of his back and I pushed him out onto the stage. Well, the wave, the sheer sound wave of all those people getting up and greeting him was physical, it was urrh! You were just physically hit by it. And he—it got him for a moment—but immediately he was straight as a die standing up and he went to various sides of the hall to bow to the audience and then he gestured towards the piano and started to sit down and then—ping!—the silence was as loud as the applause had been a moment ago.
What a moment. Horowitz had probably been as scared as any nine year old giving their first recital. Despite decades of triumph, thousands of people sitting in the audience unnerved him. But he went out there and blew everyone away. (The concert was captured by Columbia Records and is still available, 49 years later, on CD.)
Even masters sweat. Even masters find it hard to get up in the morning and get to work. Horowitz again would become reclusive, though this wasn’t his last triumphant stage appearance by the long shot. In 1986, he would make history by returning to Russia, the country of his birth, at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions, giving his first concert in Moscow since 1925. Most seats were reserved for the Kremlin elites, but a few hundred conservatory students crashed the gate. He was a rock star there too.
Yet he suffered from the same doubts and disappointments we all do. Imagine Horowitz with anything to be afraid of. Or Ernest Hemingway. Or Meryl Streep. Or Welsey Shaw.
So the next time you wonder what it feels like to be a rock star, you probably already know. And whether you’re them or you, it still takes the same thing: courage.