The BOOKPRESS September 2000


Thomas Eisner

    On the evening of March 22, 1966 I broke a rule at Cornell. I snuck a camera into a concert in Bailey Hall in hopes of taking a picture of the performer, knowing full well that I wasn’t supposed to do so.
    The performer was Artur Rubinstein and I thought the world of his playing. I was also beginning to take photography seriously at the time, and the temptation to capture one of my favorite pianists on film was simply irresistible.
    I am told that Rubinstein had not previously played in Ithaca, so the performance on that particular evening may have been his only one in our midst. The program was glorious: Beethoven and Brahms, followed by Debussy, Ravel and Chabrier, and to top it all off – Chopin. And did he ever play! To the Chopin in particular he appeared to give his all. He poured his soul into the music, moving his audience to ecstasy.
    I had kept the camera in my lap, concealed under my coat. I had given some thought on how I might take the picture. Use of flash was out of the question, so I had loaded the camera with Tri-X film, which I knew would give me an image even in the dimmest of lights. I was sitting at some distance from the stage, but thought I would get enough magnification with the telephoto lens I had brought. I also knew that I would have to take a long exposure, which with a hand-held camera meant that I would get a somewhat blurred image. But why not give it a try?
    I had held back until Rubinstein was about to play the Chopin. I reached for the camera and brought it to the eye just as he took his seat after acknowledging a round of applause. I waited for him to regain his poise, focused, and as he began lowering his hands to the keyboard, pressed the shutter.
    The inevitable "click" earned me disapproving glances from all around, and I was embarrassed. But it also gave me a picture I have loved ever since. I keep it framed on the piano. It portrays ever so accurately the Rubinstein I remember. Those drooping eyelids...That anticipatory expression...I look at the picture now and can almost hear the piano come to life. Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, Opus 23 perhaps? Well, perhaps not. But it happens to be what he played next, right after I took the picture.

Thomas Eisner is a biologist at Cornell University.

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