The interview below is not guitar related. It is an interview I did with Maestro Dan Grigore from 2007 in the period when I ran the website PhiladelphiaClassicalMusic.com. The website is no longer running though the words I don’t want to be lost. It is one of my favorite interviews. I was told later that the Maestro also enjoyed the conversation because he was never asked the line of questioned I asked.
Celebrating 50 years on stage
Friday November 2, 2007
Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA special thanks to Valentin Radu for translating.
PCM: You are a very distinguished artist in Romania but here in the United States there is very little information about you. I understand you were a child prodigy. What age did you discover the piano?
Dan Grigore: I was three and a half.
DC: How did you discover it?
Dan: We had an old up right piano in the house. I started by reaching up and playing the keys. And then I heard waltzes and romantic songs on the radio and I would start to reproduce them on the piano and then I would make up my own compositions.
PCM: Your parents recognized this?
Dan: My mother was a very gifted amateur violinist, my grandfather was very gifted painter and musician. He found my first teacher. After that I started to study harmony.
PCM: Was it hard to study in a communist regime?
Dan: There was a teacher named Mihail Jora who recognized my talent and helped me to get approved not to attend daily school but to have special schooling. Because of that I was kind of spared some of the hardships of the communist regime.
Twice a year I had to have exams to show I was learning the regular disciplines including sports. For my physical education test I had to jump over a hose. (laughter).
Then Jora’s wife got arrested and jailed for a year because her sister’s husband spoke on Radio Free Europe. There were no trails, two guys in leather coats would just show up and many times you didn’t know what was happening.
When my grandfather was 80 years old, he wrote a letter about the conditions in Romania at the time and threw it over the fence of the American Embassy in Bucharest and the KGB people saw this and he was arrested and put in a hard labor camp for seven years. His family was trying to get him out and said he didn’t mean to do this and that he was irresponsible and crazy. He said, “No I’m not! I am responsible and I know what I am doing!”.
PCM: How old were you when that happened?
Dan: Fourteen or fifteen.
PCM: Did it affect you in your musical career?
Dan: My family and I were suspected after that. You have to understand how paranoid these people were. Remember I said my teacher’s wife was arrested too.
After my grandfather got out of the camp there was a regime change and there was another leader named Nicholau Ceaussescu. He was the one everyone knows but we had bad leaders before him as well.
When he came to power he stared a nationalistic attitude of freedom. In 1968 when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, Romania was the only communist country that didn’t sent troops. Ceaussescu received a lot of international recognition for that, even in the West. My grandfather wrote a letter to Ceaussescu praising him for his nationalist attitude and standing up to the Soviet Union. Ceaussescu got the letter and asked his assistants about this man. He was told that my grandfather was an old man who spent time in jail and that he was very poor and didn’t have a pension anymore. Ceaussescu ordered his pension to be restored, all including from the time he spent in prison.
I speak a lot about my grandfather because he was my hero. He is where I got my moral core from. He is my inspiration and thanks to him I got the power to endure what life was like at that time.
PCM: When did you make your concert debut?
Dan: My concert debut was in October 16, 1957 with three pieces by Enescsu.
PCM: You also taught at the University of Bucharest?
Dan: I was head of the piano department at the University of Bucharest from 1967 until 1969 and then after the revolution 1991-2002. I left the position five years ago because I wanted certain reforms in the education and administration. I had no help or support.
PCM: What would the government do to control your career?
Dan: I was not allowed for many years to leave Romania to perform. I was not even allowed to go into other communist countries. They would invite me but the state agency that organized concerts for every Romanian artist without my knowledge would write the promoters that I broke my arm, I broke my leg or was sick otherwise. I didn’t even know about that until after the fall of Ceaussescu. They would mix up the hands they said I broke. Sometime they would say it was my right hand and sometimes they would say it was my left.
At one point I was allowed to go on a tour of Western Europe. The only reason I was able to do that was because the official government pianist got sick and the organizers in other countries said they would not allow that program to be changed. They wanted somebody that could play that repertoire. There was a lot of money invested in that tour for the Bucharest Symphony Orchestra. It was right after the big earthquake in Romania in 1977. There was a woman from the state agency that told the promoters not to cancel the tour. She said “you have to take my word for it, I have a man that can play these pieces.” Then the press came out and the front of the Soviet papers said, “Joy and Jubilation For the Replacement.”
The year 1996 was a very bleak year for the revolution in Romania. The Palace of Congress in Bucharest where Ceaussescu held the party Congresses, was a huge hall that seats about five thousand five hundred people. I had to play a big concert there with the Bucharest Philharmonic. We played the Beethoven Emperor Concerto and at the end I played two encores. The first one was a little Beethoven minuet and the second encore was a rag time by Scott Joplin. Everybody stood up and started to clap and cheer because it was clear that it was a message, not just a piece of music.
The next day Ceaussescu forbid any musical activity in that palace again because he was so paranoid. Secondly, the American Embassy made arrangements for me to be invited to America for a month (all expenses paid) to be part of a cultural exchange program. Of course, Ceaussescu did not allow that to happen. I used to do these encores in other concerts too. I wanted to show the Ceaussescu regime how out of touch with the times it was.
PCM: Was it dangerous for you?
Dan: Somehow they never put me in the gulag but I was prohibited to play anywhere. I constantly got threats. They threatened to fire me from all my jobs and I dared them. I said, “Fine, please. I will wear a sign on my chest that says, “Romanian Pianist Hungry, Needs Job” and I will walk in front of the central committee of the Communist Party.
PCM: Are you married?
Dan: I have a wife and a son.
PCM: What was your wife’s reaction to this?
Dan: She told me that if there is any possibility or occasion that I have to defect to the West to be a free artist please do it because she would be fine in Romania and we’ll find another way to reunite and some point. I knew my family would never be fine if I defected. So, I never did.
PCM: Did you worry about students like Valetin Radu who played jazz?
Dan: I didn’t know he was doing that like he didn’t know what I was doing in my concerts. It’s like don’t ask don’t tell.
PCM: Were your students in danger for being your students?
Dan: Yes, they were under the scope because of the connection.
PCM: Did anything happen to any of your students?
Dan: I don’t know about many of them. But one of my best students won a scholarship to study in Boston and the Ceaussescu regime wouldn’t allow him to go and, as a result, he was in Bucharest at the time of the earthquake in 1977 and died very tragically.
PCM: Before Valentin came to the United States in 1978 was he able to tell you he was leaving?
Dan: You wouldn’t announce to anyone that you were leaving until you are already where you were going out of fear that something might happen to you on the way to the airport.
PCM: How did you stay in touch with Valintin after he came here?
Dan: We lost touch for many years. Valentin didn’t return to Romania for many years. When he did he would visit me at the University and bring me American cigarettes. I smoked then. Then he stopped coming back to Romania again for many years.
We lost connection for almost 8 years, 1985 -1993. The first time I played in the United Sates was in 1993 in Plainfield New Jersey. The Romanian ambassador in Washington DC drove up to see my performance. He told me that he made a sacrifice to see me because Valentin Radu was performing in Philadelphia that same night. He didn’t know we were teacher and student and I didn’t know they were friends. He said that you can hear Valentin in Philadelphia anytime. I said, “Valentin is in Philadelphia? You must give him my best”. That was how we rekindled our relationship.
PCM: The concert this weekend is a celebration of your fifty years on stage. Congratulations!
Dan: Thank you! There is a celebration in Romania and Philadelphia.
(Valentin Radu has been translating)
Valentin Radu: This is a jubilee concert of fifty years and a very significant event. I am very proud that we are doing this to celebrate Maestro Grigore and he joined us. Last year we marked ten years of collaboration between Ama Deus Ensemble and Dan Grigore. I am very humbled that he is doing this. It will be the first time we perform the Grieg Piano Concerto. This is the first actual concert that Maestro will do fifty years after the date of his debut on October 16th 1957 in Bucharest.