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A pianist for the ages

Wild The world has lost a great virtuoso pianist, Earl Wild. Wild, who died Saturday at 94, was remarkable for a number of reasons. He played in public right up until a couple years ago. He had a formidable technique, and he played in the epic, lavish style of many of the old-fashioned virtuosos, pianists associated with classical music's golden age.

But you could not call Wild a "link" to a bygone tradition. "I think the only link we should talk about is the missing link, and I don't know who that is," Wild wisecracked to The Buffalo News in 2001. "Journalists do that. Every time a pianist is my age, they always think that if he had any talent, he's a link."

Known for taking big chances on stage before big crowds, Wild laughingly denied any pre-performance jitters.  "My nervous system was like an insect," he told The News. "It's a marvelous nervous system. It can withstand anything." 

A journalist's dream, Wild reminisced freely during that same interview about playing for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He liked to sit by the piano and watch my fingers," he said. "And so I would always play fast pieces." 

He also recalled playing at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. "It was a terrible night and I had to get out of the automobile in the park by the zoo and walk up the hill and thumb a ride in my tails and traffic was stopped," he said, giggling a little. "Thank God I started early. I was soaking wet up to my waist."

Wild was handsome in a rugged, white-haired, Robert Frost sort of way. Wherever he went, he created a stir. Late in his life he developed an affection for Buffalo. He came here in 2001 to play on the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, and it was an outrageous, over-the-top concert that had everyone buzzing. He was supposed to have given an encore performance a couple of years later, but illness prompted him to cancel.

Meanwhile, he came to visit several times, recording several albums on his Ivory Classics label here at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where the Tick concerts were held at the time. The CDs are available on his Web site and through these performances, his friendship with Buffalo will live on. Two years ago, Wild also readily consented to talk to me for the book I am working on about Buffalo native Leonard Pennario. They did not know each other well but Wild joined Pennario one year on the jury of the Van Cliburn Competition.

"How old is Leonard now?" I remember Wild asking me.

"He's 83," I said.

"Oh," Wild laughed. "He's a baby."

Earl Wild was a magnificent pianist and a wonderful man. His memoirs are scheduled to be published this year by Carnegie Mellon Press.

— Mary Kunz Goldman

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