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An earth-shaking talent at Peabody

Not many pianists can say -- as Ann Schein can -- "My career began with a major earthquake."

"Really, it did," Schein tells a startled visitor to her Pikesville home, explaining that Mexico had been hit by its worst earthquake of the decade only hours before her 1957 debut in the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with the Mexico City Philharmonic.

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Schein, then 17, was in Mexico with Mieczyslaw Munz, her teacher at the Peabody Conservatory, and her parents. They decided to walk through the rubble-littered streets to the concert hall -- "just in case anyone showed up," Schein says. They found the orchestra and 1,000 people waiting. "All the electricity, lights and water in the city were out, and the hall had its own power

and water supply," Schein says, modestly trying to explain that the people weren't there for her.

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But they almost certainly were. Those were the days when women did not play the Rachmaninov Third, the most physically demanding concerto in the standard repertoire. Certainly not a woman who was still only a girl. Despite the aftereffects of an earthquake, the Mexicans were curious to see if Schein could play the Rachmaninov Third.

She could -- and she still can.

And her career really did begin -- and not just in the literal sense -- with the impact of an earthquake.

Baltimore audiences know Schein, who performs Chopin's E Minor Concerto Saturday with the Concert Artists of Baltimore and music director Edward Polochick, as a revered teacher at the Peabody Conservatory and a superb chamber music player. But when Schein, now 55, was in her late teens and early 20s, she was one of the world's most talked about young pianists. The outstanding records she had completed before she was 20 long ago achieved collector's item status. Her playing so impressed Arthur Rubinstein that he invited her to spend two summers working intensively with him in Paris and Switzerland -- a privilege the legendary Rubinstein never granted any other pianist. And Schein's blond, wholesome beauty -- she could have been mistaken for a Hollywood ingenue -- made her the poster girl of American pianism.

Schein blushes, begins to giggle nervously and, finally, roars with laughter at the thought of herself as a pin-up. She politely covers her laughing mouth with her right hand, wrapping the left one around her right wrist. For so small and delicate a woman her hands are remarkably large. The palms are meaty and broad, the fingers fat and long -- hands ideal for devouring the difficulties of Rachmaninov concerti or Chopin etudes.

It was recordings of such works on the now defunct Kapp label that had established Schein's American reputation by 1959. In the next few years she performed in Moscow, Oslo, Vienna, London, Stockholm and Paris. At 22, the pianist made a New York Philharmonic debut with the Rachmaninov Third and gave a Carnegie Hall recital a few weeks later. Along with Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels and Vladimir Ashkenazy, Schein was on the roster of "Sol Hurok Presents" -- the most prestigious boutique management in the concert world.

The fall

"For a while I was everywhere," the pianist says.

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Then the bottom seemed to drop out. Like most extravagantly praised young musicians, Schein had to endure a counter-reaction of re-appraisals. Some were quite nasty -- such as a famously cruel, but enormously influential, New York critic who questioned whether Schein (or any woman) really had enough strength for works such as the Rachmaninov Third. While some critics remained enthusiastic, others began to carp about the young pianist's "immaturity."

"At 22, they expected a finished product," Schein says. "Although I continued to get some nice engagements, I wouldn't say that the career was built the way a young artist needs."

Gradually the engagements dropped away. By 1980, the year in which she joined the Peabody faculty, and also gave the first Chopin cycle in New York in almost 40 years, many of Schein's old fans didn't know she was still playing.

"I think they thought I had dropped off the face of the earth," she says.

That was hardly the case. Schein had actually been busier than ever -- just not in the old ways.

A positive turn

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In 1969, she had married Earl Carlyss, then second violinist in the Juilliard Quartet and now the occupant of the Sydney Friedberg Chair of Chamber Music at Peabody, who is generally conceded to have one of the best and widest-ranging minds in music. Schein and Carlyss had two daughters -- Linnea, now 24, and Pauline, 22.

But the pianist was occupied by more than her husband and daughters. She began to play an enormous amount of chamber music and became committed to American music, performing and recording works by Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Ned Rorem, Aaron Copland and others.

"Pianists tend to have blinders on," she says. "They practice their huge repertory behind closed doors. Earl opened me up to a whole new world of music and my ear went crazy. I began to hear and perform chamber music I had never heard before, and I kind of forgot the piano as a solo instrument. I grew from being a pianist into a musician."

Fortunately, Schein still possesses a virtuoso's technique. She performed the Rachmaninov Third again a few years ago at the Aspen Festival, and a tape recording reveals a pianist who still masters its treacherously black-with-notes pages.

Two years ago, an old friend -- the soprano Jessye Norman -- asked Schein to perform and record with her. That return to the recording studio proved so positive that the pianist has decided to accept an invitation from another old friend -- conductor James DePreist -- to record the two Chopin concertos. When Schein makes the record sometime next year, it will be her first of virtuosic music since recording Chopin's F Minor Concerto and Rachmaninov's Third with conductor Eugene Goosens and the Vienna Philharmonic in Vienna's famed Musikvereinsaal. Her performance Saturday of Chopin's E Minor Concerto, which she has not lived with for as long as the F Minor work, is therefore something of a trial run.

"The slow movement is so special," Schein says dreamily. "It starts out so fragile and then breaks into such a rich outpour of melody.

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"When I was 20 and recording those concertos in Vienna, I was so excited because I thought this was the way my life was supposed to be," she continues. "I was working with a great conductor and orchestra in the world's most famous concert hall."

Munz, her teacher, had accompanied her to Vienna. As they listened in the control room to playbacks of her energetic, youthfully fearless playing in the control room, Schein says, Munz suddenly looked up at her, smiled and said: "Someday, you'll enjoy playing slowly."

Now Schein smiles.

"He was such a subtle, poetic artist," she says. "And he was so right."

THE PIANIST

What: Concert Artists of Baltimore, With Ann Schein

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When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: College of Notre Dame, LeClerc Hall

Cost: $18 regular admission; $13, seniors and students; age 18 or younger, free.

$ Call: (410) 764-7371


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