Though life gives and takes, 85-year-old piano phenom never loses control

Pianist Joseph Schwartz, 85, plays his Steinway grand piano at home in Clearwater on his birthday. Schwartz is playing Chopin and other classical works at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, April 30.  SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
Pianist Joseph Schwartz, 85, plays his Steinway grand piano at home in Clearwater on his birthday. Schwartz is playing Chopin and other classical works at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, April 30. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published April 29, 2017

CLEARWATER — It's Joseph Schwartz's 85th birthday.

On this weekday in April, he's in the living room where a black Steinway takes up most of the space. Sounds bounce off the terrazzo floor, to a sliding glass door and small swimming pool on the other side. The floor amplifies every mutterance from Cookie and Mia, Bichon mixes studying the room from a cage, and every spoken word.

Schwartz can only hear some of these sounds, as he is partially deaf. Like the metric he's spent a lifetime studying, the pianist has a precise idea, an "ideal distance," about where a visitor should sit. Today, he makes visitors sit 3 feet away.

Reading music is much harder than it used to be. Schwartz lost an eye in a botched surgery. A lot of people would have sued. "I'm not the suing kind," he says.

He's not big on birthdays, either. Later, he'll eat at the Sunset Grill.

On this day, he is thinking about the performance he'll give Sunday in Tarpon Springs. He has been playing in colleges and churches, in Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art or for niche audiences.

His former students call asking him to do this. He has played as part of the Oberlin Trio or at his alma mater of Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, where the Joseph Schwartz Steinway resides.

He loves music intensely. Yet, Schwartz does not want to feel it too much. He'll play Schumann, Chopin and Prokofiev, all at arm's length.

"I want the audience to be swept away," he says. "In order to do that, you really can't be swept away yourself. As a young man, I made that mistake. I'd get too involved."

He turns back, fingers poised.

• • •

He met Renata in 1961, when she was an Oberlin student.

"I didn't really like him," she says. "He was not all that encouraging."

He gave her B grades for four years. Schwartz was married then to the former Florence Katz, a mezzo soprano. She died in 2002 "after 49 years of marriage," he says, an italicized phrase, a burn mark.

Renata was divorced and living in Port Richey in 2004 when she saw her old professor was giving a concert. She invited him over for dinner and sat with him at the piano to play a "four-handed" Mozart.

"That did it for me," she says.

He took her face in his hands.

"We can never be more than friends."

• • •

Schwartz was born April 18, 1932, in the Bronx, N.Y. Asked what his father did for a living, he chuckles.

"You really want to know?"

The laundry man had a bootlegging business on the side and listened to classical music. When Schwartz plunked a few notes on a friend's piano and went gaga, his father bought him an upright.

He studied for six years with a former protege of music theoretician Heinrich Schenkel, whose motto was, "Always the same, but not always in the same way." Schwartz won a scholarship to the Juilliard School. Classmates included Van Cliburn, perhaps the most celebrated pianist of the 20th century.

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In 1958, Schwartz won the Naumburg International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious contests in the world. Two years later, he joined the faculty at Oberlin. Students included a 16-year-old chemistry major named Jeremy Denk, now one of the world's best pianists.

• • •

"Want to do a four-hand?" Renata Schwartz says, pulling out sheet music for Brahms' Hungarian Dance.

They launch into the familiar melody, his hands popping off the keyboard. Light and color explode from his hands. His wife reliably plays the bass line.

There are things he cannot talk about.

Schwartz retired in 1998, the same year his daughter Leslie lost a nine-year struggle with cancer. He moved to Clearwater. He says it was for family and the weather. Renata says, maybe, it was for distance.

Apart from arthritis that slightly reduces his hand span, he's as good as ever, maybe better. Half of that, he says, is about knowing what not to do, about staying in control.

The notes of Schumann's Fantasie flutter up from the strings. It's a piece the composer wrote for a woman he loved obsessively. It reflects a certain tumult. It looks for resolution.

The notes wander through the room like thoughts, like wind shuffling the blinds, changing their mind, answering questions with more questions.

"It's one of the most deep-felt paeans — is that a word?" he says. "It's simply amazing. It's sitting at the piano and improvising, just this sense of rapture that he is feeling. I don't know how to describe it, really."

He's making eye contact through the good eye, speaking with emphasis bordering on desperation, as if insisting on that thing he cannot describe.

He turns back to the piano and steers the third movement toward the kind of ending he cherishes, a glider, steadily in control, landing in a field.

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.