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Nyiregyházi, James Sample, and the Federal Music Project

by Kevin Bazzana (6. 2008)

In Lost Genius, I devote most of Chapter 12, “Pianist for Hire,” to Nyiregyházi’s work with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, one of the Roosevelt Administration’s “New Deal” programs during the later years of the Great Depression. An avowed admirer of FDR, Nyiregyházi was devoted to the F.M.P., and performed as a recitalist and concerto soloist in many of its public and educational concerts in the Los Angeles area. Through the F.M.P., he had for a time a small but regular salary—$94.08 per month—and, by his own admission, did some of the most artistically satisfying work of his career.

His first documented F.M.P. concert was on June 19, 1936, in Liszt’s Totentanz, and at least a dozen subsequent appearances are documented; there were presumably more, for he was a favourite with the federal orchestras in Southern California. Alas, he made only one recording for the F.M.P., of a not-very-interesting five-minute novelty: “Before the Dawn,” from Deserted Garden, by the local composer Cameron O’Day Macpherson, which he recorded in 1936 with Modest Altschuler and the Los Angeles Federal Symphony.

Nyiregyházi performed concertos for the F.M.P. most often under Altschuler’s baton, but he also collaborated with the young American conductor James Sample (1910-1995). Trained as both a pianist and a conductor, Sample conducted and taught in his hometown, Minneapolis, then studied and guest-conducted in Europe (his teachers there included Pierre Monteux), before moving to Los Angeles in 1937 to lead symphonic concerts and operas for the F.M.P. Beginning in 1942, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and the City Center Opera, in New York, and in the decades that followed he held positions in cities including San Bernardino, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Portland (Oregon), Erie (Pennsylvania), and Fort Wayne (Indiana). In 1982, he retired from conducting to devote himself to composing and coaching advanced vocal students. He died in 1995. (Wikipedia has a mostly accurate, if sketchy, article on Sample.)

Recently I was put in touch with a member of Sample’s family (who wishes to remain anonymous), and was given programs for two concerts in which her father and Nyiregyházi appeared together with the W.P.A. Southern California Symphony Orchestra, both times in Los Angeles’s Embassy Auditorium. The first concert, featuring Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, was presented by the Society of Native American Composers on Christmas Day, 1940. The critic Isabel Morse Jones, in the Los Angeles Times, called Nyiregyházi “a phenomenal prodigy, who has never lost his ability to excite an audience.” She went on, “Nyiregyházi is hard on pianos but his sense of drama and his control of rhythms carry his listeners along with him. … The audience applauded between every movement and many rose to cry bravos and demand two encores at the end.” Carl Bronson, in the Evening Herald and Express, wrote that Nyiregyházi “fairly stampeded his audience to cheers,” and that his playing called to mind that of the great late-nineteenth-century Russian virtuoso Anton Rubinstein. This “intrepid master of technicalities,” Bronson added, “combines so deeply emotional a fervor with his art as to astound an audience.”

The other Nyiregyházi-Sample concert was on November 11, 1941, and featured two big piano-orchestra works by Liszt: the Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major (a Nyiregyházi specialty since his late teens) and Totentanz. This was Nyiregyházi’s last concert for the F.M.P. (the whole W.P.A. was terminated not long afterward); moreover, though he would live for another forty-six years, it was the last performance he would ever give with an orchestra.
   (There was a third concert that featured both Nyiregyházi and Sample—a concert of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra on December 17, 1937. In this case, Sample conducted two orchestral works but it was Altschuler who joined Nyiregyházi in the Tchaikovsky concerto.)

Alas, though Sample made more than six hundred recordings in just his first two years with the F.M.P., and though some F.M.P. concerts were broadcast on the radio on the West Coast, in programs like Standard Hour, no recordings of concerts featuring Nyiregyházi have ever come to light. (An off-the-air acetate recording of the Standard Hour broadcast of his October 1936 F.M.P. performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 apparently once survived—perhaps still does—but its whereabouts are unknown.)

In taped interviews with a member of his family in 1992, when he was eighty-two, Sample reminisced about his career—including Nyiregyházi:
Ervin Nyiregyházi is a famous Hungarian pianist who at one time was Paderewski’s chief competitor and had quite a history. He was a marvelous pianist, but quite a character. He had such a heavy touch, especially with Liszt, that at times his fingers would bleed. I remember the first time he played with me. I came off-stage to say good morning. He had adhesive tape around his fingers, and I said, “What in the world is the matter with you?,” and he said “Oh, that’s to keep my fingers from slipping on the keys when they bleed.” He was very famous at one time. Each time he played a Liszt [concerto] the hall was jammed full. Later on he was rediscovered. I could make a couple of tapes on Nyiregyházi. He knew what he was doing and we got along fine.
Unfortunately, Sample never got around to filling up “a couple of tapes” with recollections of Nyiregyházi—the results would undoubtedly have been fascinating.

   — Kevin Bazzana

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