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Specials: All Out for Project X

5 minute read

Pianist Vladimir Horowitz likes a relaxing television show as much as the next man, whether it is baseball, or a panel discussion or Bonanza. But when TV tries to get in tune with classical music, Horowitz tunes out. “Everything I’ve seen on music has been a flop,” he says. “There are too many things that distract the eye at the expense of the ear. With a symphony orchestra you jump around the sections. With a singer you see tonsils.”

Now, for the first time, Horowitz will be able to sit down in his Manhattan town house and watch a music program that meets his exacting standards. A CBS special next Sunday (9 p.m., E.D.T.) will present a unique, simple and dramatic TV experience: 50 uninterrupted minutes of a virtuoso instrumental recital. There will be no portentous documentary script, no dizzying camera angles, no glamorized settings—just an unadorned closeup of a great performer at work. The performer: Vladimir Horowitz. Oddly enough, this is one time when Horowitz will have to forgo Bonanza; that’s his NBC competitor Sunday night.

No Spaghetti. Horowitz was persuaded to do the program by an old friend, New York Times Critic-at-Large Howard Taubman, who acted as executive producer. Taubman argued that a TV recital would be a good way for Horowitz to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his U.S. debut. It would also be an ideal chance to make up for the infrequency of his public appearances in recent years.

Horowitz agreed, but he laid down a set of conditions to ensure that, this time, the eyes would not have it over the ears. He insisted that the scene be Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall rather than a TV studio. He reserved the power to veto any sponsor that he considered out of key (“No spaghetti”); CBS obliged, signed General Telephone & Electronics Corp. Although Horowitz accepted the ground rule that no piece should last longer than ten minutes, he stuck by his determination “not to play down to the public, but not to be too esoteric either.” His program is a shrewd sampling of nine works from his recent recitals, including the noble pathos of Chopin’s Polonaise in F-Sharp Minor, the lapidary classicism of two Scarlatti sonatas, and the flashy fireworks of his own Variations on a Gypsy Song from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Talcum for Creaks. Horowitz’s stiffest stipulation, however, was that he be allowed a dry run of the program before committing himself to go through with it. CBS, whose executives considered the show such a top secret that they referred to it only as “Project X,” dispatched carpenters to Carnegie Hall to shore up the aging stage. Talcum powder was sprinkled between the boards to eliminate creaks caused by the movement of cameras. TV crewmen were provided with velvet slippers. Producer-Director Roger Englander boned up on scores so that camera angles could be synchronized with changes in the mood of the music. Then, one day last January, two simulated performances were videotaped. Only after all this—which cost a big chunk of the $275,000 that CBS spent to produce the program—did Horowitz give final approval. The actual show was taped before an invited audience a month later.

Now that he has viewed the finished product, Horowitz says he is satisfied with what he hears. He should be. His performance gleams with austerely romantic feeling. It is etched in powerful but finely shaded tones and topped with his customary technical glitter. What appalls Horowitz, however, is what he sees. “When I play,” he says, “something goes on in me that makes a strange expression come over my face. To show it is almost an invasion of my privacy. And I’ve never watched my own fingers moving over the keys that way. It’s fantastic, but sometimes the technique is awful. Things I tell my students not to do I’m doing!”

10 Million Flop. Characteristically, Horowitz is “completely pessimistic” about whether his recital will appeal to masses of U.S. viewers. He already has a $200 bet with Taubman that CBS will quietly shelve the program after one snowing and never rerun it. “The network thinks of success in the supermillions, whereas I think of it in the superthousands,” he says. “I’m doing this for the small towns, for the young generation that studies my name in school, but doesn’t know anything of my playing, for those people who have never bought a record or gone to a concert. If even ten of those people watch, I’m happy. But then the ratings will come, and they’ll say, ‘My God, you’re a flop; only 10 million people watched.’ ”

Even if he is a ratings success, Horowitz figures that he will have problems. An intensely private man, he dislikes being recognized on the street. In anticipation of any unwelcome notoriety, he has acquired a paste-on mustache and beard.

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