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Edition 23

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Reportage

Willy and Roy

ROY PRESTON LOVED loved the smell. When the amplifier's valves warmed up: their filaments glowing orange, they gave off a sweet musty odour. He opened the cabinet doors just to inhale it. Who'd have thought gramophones could be so seductive. Roy smiled and swung the weighty arm of the Royce Senior Traverser into place across the turntable. It had its own smell, too – light machine oil and heavy steel. What a contraption! Manufactured in Melbourne, it was worth every penny of the £100 he had paid for it. Twenty times his weekly wage – but he'd made hundreds of recordings. Not just theatre organs and jazz, but the classics, which he was increasingly coming to like.

Roy placed a fresh black acetate disc on the turntable. The right stylus with the right worm drive could engrave half an hour of music on its gleaming surface. He selected a heavy steel scroll the thickness of a broom handle and fitted it. It looked like an industrial machine – not out of place amid the wreckage he'd seen in New Guinea less than a decade ago – but the Traverser's teal parkerised paint shouted modern.

He waded through the clutter of his lounge room. Nothing should ever be thrown out, Roy had told his mother time and again. But where was this week's Listener In? Why was it always buried? Roy sorted through old concert programs. He'd kept them all as well as boxes of secret reports, how-to-surrender leaflets and strategic maps he'd brought back from the Pacific. Intelligence clerk Lance-Sergeant Preston had typed and edited them. Why shouldn't he keep copies?

He found the program guide and turned to the radio listings for Thursday, October 22, 1953. 3AR was broadcasting William Kapell's last recital in Australia. The American pianist was touring for the ABC and Roy had already put down some of his concerts – filled four or five sixteen-inch acetates. Tonight at the Plaza Theatre in Geelong Kapell was playing Scarlatti, Schubert, and three of Mendelssohn's songs without words. Lots of variety, but the ABC was broadcasting only Chopin's second sonata – the so-called ‘funeral march'. He knew that one. ‘Daa-daa-de-daa,' he murmured. Roy inserted a new stylus and positioned it above the disc, adjusting its balance against a steel counterweight. The broadcast was delayed, didn't start till 10 pm. He'd have time to take a cup of tea to mum. Be ready when it did. ‘Daa-daa-de-daa,' he hummed.

 

WILLY KAPELL SHOOK out the match and drew heavily on his cigarette. He closed his eyes, sat back and listened to the comforting low drone of the DC6's four Pratt & Whitney engines. He'd be happy to get back to New York for the cigarettes alone. Fourteen weeks away and he'd run out of Camels and Lucky Strikes. British brands were not the same.

He was beat. Thirty-seven concerts in three months. He'd seen all of Australia, but none of it. Committed artist that he was, when he wasn't performing he was practising. To get back to Anna Lou and the kids, little David and Rebecca, would be the best thing. He'd missed them. Those so-called music critics in Sydney wouldn't miss him. What did they know? He took a cup of coffee from the hostess. He was just thirty-one but already a great pianist, he told himself. Everyone knew it. The Australian tour had proved it. He'd never played better.

He'd been great against the odds. His Steinway damaged en route to Australia. The itinerary, he told the ABC managers, was ‘brutal'. They'd argued over programs. No wonder he wanted to quit halfway through. No wonder he'd been so depressed after Anna Lou left. But he showed them. Everything about that last concert was great. He couldn't have done the ‘funeral march' better. The surges in the presto final movement, the fingers steel-strong, the louds and softs, the crescendi and diminuendi ... It wasn't piano-playing. It was magic. That's what an artist was for. To create other worlds, and he was a great world artist. Even for the people of Geelong.

The critic rats of Australia knew nothing. He mustn't let them get him down. He meant it at Sydney airport when he told them: ‘This is goodbye forever. I shall never return.' I bet it made the papers. ‘I shall never return!' Unlike General MacArthur, he thought.

He lit another cigarette, sucked in the smoke and gave way to random thoughts. The plane was quarter-full. He'd slept okay. The flight was on time. At least Australians could run an airline. He was glad he hadn't stopped over in Hawaii. Anna Lou had said, get out in the sun and enjoy yourself. Take a few days, don't rush home, she'd said, but he knew deep down she wanted him back. He looked out the window. Grey cotton-wool clouds cushioned the wings. They stretched unbroken to the horizon. The plane was descending. San Francisco couldn't be far away. Probably foggy.

 

ON THE FLIGHT deck, Captain Bruce Dickson of Cronulla the control column of ‘Resolution' a little more firmly. For all the modernity in the cabin, the comfy pull-down bunks, the reading lights, the pressurisation, piped air and wide reclining seats, the cockpit still reminded him of a bomber. The wheel was thin and black, like a Morris Minor's. But now he and first officer Frank Campbell had a job to do. The radio officer, navigator and flight engineer, too, would have their work cut out while they flew blind.

British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Flight 304/44 had been en route from Honolulu for nine hours. San Francisco traffic control cleared Dickson's slow descent, but asked him to stay at least five hundred feet above the clouds. Visibility was nine miles and a wind from the west blew at twelve knots. Dickson got out his Dalton wheel, sliding its concentric rings of white lucite, aligning its gradations for ground speed, airspeed, altitude and air temperature. Peering at the finely etched lines, he scribbled calculations. He knew exactly where they were. He had landed here more than a hundred times, often using only instruments. At 8.42 am West Coast time – eight minutes before ‘Resolution' was due to nudge the tarmac blocks – Captain Dickson reported that he was turning on his final approach. He put down the landing gear and set the aircraft's flaps to fifteen degrees.

 

WILLY KAPELL WAS born to Russian-polish Jews who had emigrated from Europe to a dream come true – they owned a modest bookshop on Manhattan's Upper East Side. At a very early age, Willy is said to have demonstrated amazing musical precocity; his mother soothed him with Mozart recordings, and he loved banging the keys of any piano. Most children do this, but Edith and Harry paid for half-dollar piano lessons for Willy from when he was seven until he got tired of practising. The hiatus was short, and at ten Willy wanted to play again. His parents got Dorothy LaFollette to take him on. She immediately detected the boy's genius, tutoring him at a knock-down rate three days a week over several hours.

Mrs LaFollette was well connected, and the right people soon heard Kapell play. By sixteen he was studying with the distinguished pianist Olga Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatory where he won the Philadelphia Orchestra's Youth Contest, its world-renowned music director Eugene Ormandy conducting. He then enrolled at the famed Juilliard School and a second prestigious prize led to a debut recital at New York Town Hall. (Glenn Gould followed the same path fourteen years later.) Willy chose a brave program: Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. The New York Times called him ‘generously gifted ... but, more important, he has imagination and sensitivity', the Herald Tribune was left with a ‘feeling of exhilaration'. Willy was nineteen.

Although both his father and brother were servicemen, he was exempt from military duties because of allergies. But, like many artists, he was asked to make recordings for the troops. He put down at least one, which has become a sought-after rarity.

Four years later, in 1945, his fame was growing and he toured Australia for the first time. He asked for U$S1,000 a concert when the going rate was a hundred pounds. Wherever he played, commentators and fellow musicians fell in love with his work. Many raved, but following the slightest criticism he would brood for days.

Eight years later – when he returned to Australia – he was a superstar. Half James Dean, half Robert Mitchum, his publicity stills reveal an intense youth beneath an enormous bow-wave of brilliantined locks. Shorter than average, he had an athletic body, strong broad hands and dark, brooding features. Bobby-soxers adored him as much as music lovers. He was modest, serious and thoughtful, and when he wasn't practising he was reading scores or books or sucking on a Camel.

The ABC and the pianist wrangled over fees, programs and itineraries, but executives found him generally affable and enthusiastic. He began the tour with a two-concerto program in Melbourne Town Hall on Saturday, July 18. For the next three months he performed in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney, and in the town halls of Bendigo and Horsham, the Albert Hall in Canberra, the Century Theatre in Newcastle and the Star Theatre in Shepparton. One can imagine the quality of the instruments at some of these venues. Just a year before Kapell toured, the famed pianist Paul Badura-Skoda had taken a tuning lever on stage at Geelong for the second half of his concert and adjusted some of the strings himself. Only one concert was cancelled because of ‘nervous exhaustion', and Kapell declined to prepare Beethoven's Appassionata sonata for Shepparton because of a leg injury. The only glitches.

In general, critics were jubilant, noticing the pianist's great artistic development since he had last been in Australia. Linda Phillips in Melbourne's Sun called him a ‘more mature and thoughtful pianist', a master of ‘extraordinary brilliance' with the kind of musicianship that stamped him ‘among the elite'. The Age's music critic thought Kapell gave Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition a ‘re-creation in one of the most arresting versions ever likely to come our way'. Every section of the work was ‘vividly alive and seeable'. Kapell was ‘one of the greatest and most discerning pianists of his day'. Biddy Allen said the pianist's ‘command of rhythmical span and tonal mass' was ‘astonishing' . James Govenlock announced that Kapell was ‘now a mature artist' and ‘Fidelio' wrote: ‘My goodness! How that poet has grown in the seven (sic) years since [he] played here last!' Dr B.V. Pusenjak in Perth said Kapell's ‘astonishing' performance was ‘of great beauty, tender in its phrasing, full of dazzling virtuosities and constrained to the tiniest details at the same time'.

In Sydney the critics were lukewarm. Before he'd struck a note, the Sydney Morning Herald's Lindsey Browne was writing him off. He thought Kapell might approach playing Mozart ‘as a kind of fancy-dress ball'. Once he began playing, these attitudes congealed. One Sydney critic damned Kapell with faint praise, saying his recital was ‘spectacular if not very moving'. A Mozart sonata was ‘hard, arid playing, very efficient, but austere and chilly'. After two of three Sydney recitals in early September (Willy no doubt read the notices), Kapell asked the ABC how much he'd owe them if he withdrew from the contract. Mr R.G. Gifford, the ABC's Assistant Controller of Administration (Finance), forwarded a list to the pianist at the Hotel Australia in Castlereagh Street: publicity, advertising, printing concert tickets, broadcast-line rentals, deposits on accommodation and the full cost of his wife's airfare. Gifford's list rounds off the sum, his final line pregnant with threat: ‘Say £1,500'. It was more than ten times the average concert fee – £125 when he played with an orchestra and £160 for a recital. He opted to play on.

Indeed, the Sydney critics probably spurred him to even more sublime heights. But they'd got at him. Ten days before he left, he told the Sydney Sunday Telegraph's Eunice Gardiner that he would never play in Australia again. Most of his tirade was directed at Lindsey Browne, whom he described as the mastermind of a coterie of critics against him. It was time to put a stop to the ‘madhatters tea-party, which represents a large proportion of music criticism in Sydney ... Much of what is written is uninformed, false, and malicious; it is often even ridiculous,' Kapell complained. His critique of the critics splashed over three columns.

A decade later, Melbourne music writer Alan Gemmell, who had met Kapell during the tour, revealed that in the latter weeks the pianist had had ‘frequent fits of depression'. On the eve of his departure he told Gemmell that he ‘might not live to see home'. Joseph Post, who had conducted several of the concerto performances, wrote that Kapell was ‘in a rather depressed frame of mind'. Post and his wife entertained Kapell, and he told Gemmell he had ‘let off steam' about Sydney's critics. ‘I can still hear him spitting out with great venom, the epithet. The rats!'

 

SAN FRANCISCO AIRPORT lies twenty one kilometres south of the city. A spine of mountains more than six hundred metres high runs for scores of kilometres south-east of the runway, and there are more mountains to the north-east. Because of a navigational error, Captain Dickson turned to land much farther south than he should have and descended into forest. ‘Resolution' scythed through the tops of several redwoods, which can grow more than a hundred metres. The DC6 lost four metres of the left wing and hit the ground half a kilometre farther on.

It burst into flames and all nineteen people on board were killed. One report says Kapell was identified by his sports jacket. Others insist that dental records were used for the first time to identify victims of a tragedy that delivered an eerie coda to the pianist's premonition.

Tributes from musicians and fans around the world were eloquent. Anna Lou and his record company RCA Victor asked the ABC for recordings made during Kapell's last concerts. Mr W.G. James, the Commission's director of music, declared that recordings of ABC concerts were ‘of an ephemeral nature, made for one broadcast only after which they are subject to compulsory destruction'. Staff were told to erase them for the sake of the artists. RCA Victor found it hard to believe.

His widow and children sued the airline, and in 1964 a United States District Court jury awarded them almost a million dollars. Qantas, which had taken over the defunct airline, appealed, and the US Court of Appeals sitting in New York reversed the decision. Celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who was Jack Ruby's counsel, based his defence on Kapell's earning potential, and reportedly retained his fee, but Anna Lou and the children got nothing.

 

IN THE EARLY 1970s, Maurice Austin met Roy Oreston through the Theatre Organ Society of Australia. Although Roy was more than thirty years older than Maurice, they were similar souls. ‘Gregarious loners,' Maurice says. Both were unmarried; men with wide interests and lots of time. They shared a love of music almost to the point of obsession. Maurice was a compositor who set type by hand, evolved with the industry to become a linotype operator, then cut and paste columns for offset printers before finally learning to use a Mac.

About twice a month, the organ society met to hear great players perform on one of Melbourne's handful of world-ranked organs. Maurice lived in Melbourne's outer north-west, and it was no trouble for him to pick up Roy and take him home after the concerts. Roy didn't want Maurice to go to any trouble, so he stood in his long gabardine raincoat and tightly knotted tie, sixteen-inch acetates under his arm at the end of his North Fitzroy street. In thanks for the lift, he gave Maurice half a dozen discs each trip – mostly jazz or organ music.

Roy often wondered what would happen to his thousands of recordings. ‘They'll probably end up down the tip,' he said. Maurice would reply: ‘Not if I can help it!'

Maurice recalls: ‘One night in the early 1990s he's there on the corner and he gets in the front seat of my Subaru with an armful of acetates and there's a big grin on his face. He's holding a CD, and he says: "You'll never guess what I found in Discurio" – the record shop. And I said: "No, I wouldn't." And he says: "It's a CD of William Kapell, and one of my recordings is on it!" Well, he's waving the CD at me and it intrigued me. I couldn't see in the car, but when we got to Malvern Town Hall I had a look at it. And it's William Kapell Plays Chopin. Now, there'd been the odd LP come out of Kapell's recordings – from studio sessions to live concerts. But this one had the second Chopin sonata and a long note on the back saying that it had been more or less taken from an ABC broadcast on October 22, 1953, Kapell's last concert.

‘Well, Roy was chuffed, but I asked him how it got on to a commercial CD. And he said he'd given the acetate to a Melbourne concert entrepreneur ... He couldn't remember his name. Some weeks later he did, though, and it was Clifford Hocking. Clifford had told him that he'd "done something with the acetate". Presumably, this meant that he'd passed it on somehow to one or several small record producers. BMG Music, which claimed copyright, had found it and put it out on a commercial scale. For Roy this was wonderful because it just meant sharing his great love of music.'

 

BY THE EARLY 2000s, Roy was frail and in his late eighties. Maurice had become his carer; he retired early partly to look after his friend. As Roy's health deteriorated, Maurice booked him in to hospitals and nursing homes. Roy appointed Maurice executor of his will, and as he weakened, Maurice realised he'd need to tie up the numerous loose ends of Roy's life. Roy couldn't remember, for instance, where he'd put the title of the North Fitzroy house and it had to be sold to pay for his care.

Maurice pushed open the front door of Roy's home and scarcely believed the chaos. Piles of printed material – from weekly magazines to specialist periodicals and secret war documents to concert programs from the 1940s – were stacked willy-nilly. Maurice found a considerable library of books that were mostly about music. And there were records – thousands and thousands of records. Roy's collection of 78s filled fifteen milk crates when Maurice shifted them. About five thousand LPs, several thousand tapes, and almost three thousand CDs were shelved and catalogued. Each included a slip noting Roy's preferred volume and balance settings.

Then there was the rack of acetates – some fifteen hundred. Maurice started going through them. He found recordings of great local jazz exponents such as Graham Bell, ‘Wocka' Dyer and Geoff Kitchen, some of the finest theatre-organ performances ever recorded, and archives of ABC concerts. Among them were recordings of visiting pianistic greats and four more acetates of William Kapell. Maurice knew little about Kapell, and said to himself: ‘Here's this bloke again.'

He googled the name when he got home. There was one Kapell in New York – David, a real-estate agent – and he dashed off an email, asking if he was related to Willy. David quickly replied that he was his son and, his mother Anna Lou, a distinguished sociologist, was alive and living in Manhattan.

Dr Anna Lou Kapell Dehavenon replied to an email from Maurice: ‘How can we possibly describe the thrill we experience reading and re-reading your [email]?' She explained her lack of success in getting recordings from the ABC. Several of the recorded pieces, she wrote, were ‘my most favorite Kapell performances', including Prokofiev's Seventh sonata and Chopin's Barcarolle opus 60. She wanted the acetates cleaned up and transferred to CD for possible inclusion in Kapell's discography. In return, she offered to send a Sony BMG nine-CD collection of Kapell's recordings that had been released in 1998.

Maurice read the email exchanges to Roy at his bedside in late 2003. Roy was ecstatic. Using basic software, Maurice remastered the acetates as best he could, transferring them to CDs, and sent them to New York. Some months later friends of Anna Lou took the four precious Kapell acetates as cabin baggage to New York.

They were released by Sony BMG last year under the RCA Red Seal label to enormous critical acclaim. The two-CD set is called William Kapell reDiscovered – The Australian Broadcasts. They contain three important new items: a dream-like interpretation of Debussy's Suite Bergamasque, a stupendous performance of the devilishly difficult Prokofiev Seventh sonata and the Barcarolle his widow loved so much. They reveal a musician of rare genius.

 

ROY WHISPERS THAT he wants to go out with music in his ears. Maurice links infrared headphones to a CD player. Roy can't use his hands so he tells Maurice what he wants to hear. Bach is number one. He's not religious, but three days before he dies he listens to a recording of Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring he'd made of Stanfield Holliday playing the Capitol Theatre Wurlitzer in 1952. The next day, though, he is on morphine and Maurice bends close to jot down the name of a piece Roy wants to hear. He doesn't know it, but looks through the CD collection and finds the Turangalîla-Symphonie by French composer Olivier Messiaen. It's a sprawling modernist work of ten movements, drafted just after World War II. Its title comes from Sanskrit words meaning variously ‘love song, hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death'. Few rank it among their favorite listens but it was the last music Roy heard – not Bach, a Wurlitzer, or jazz. Not even his home-made recordings of William Kapell.


From Griffith Review Edition 23: Essentially Creative © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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