By Harrison Smith
The Washington Post
A piano prodigy who made his professional debut at age 12, Peter Serkin seemed destined from childhood to carry on the legacy of his father, Rudolf Serkin, one of the 20th century's most revered pianists.
But while the elder Serkin was celebrated for breathing new life into Beethoven and other old masters, his son became known for championing the work of 20th-century composers such as Oliver Knussen, Toru Takemitsu, Stefan Wolpe and his childhood friend Peter Lieberson, even as he worked to reveal rich new textures in the classical repertoire so cherished by his father.
Serkin, who was 72 when he died Feb. 1, played everything from Bach to Berio and Mozart to Messiaen, sometimes using a 19th-century fortepiano to perform period works. He also acquired a reputation as something of a concert-hall rebel, performing in a dashiki and love beads in the early 1970s before trading his countercultural attire for three-piece pinstripe suits, settling into a role as one of his generation's preeminent performers.
"He's one of a handful of pianists who not only possess a cerebral understanding of the music of our time but the ability to communicate it with feeling," music critic Ira Rosenblum once wrote in the New York Times. "In his hands, even the most formidable works are fluid and expressive."
Serkin regularly commissioned works from contemporary composers and, like other members of his prodigiously talented family, described music in near-religious terms, telling the Boston Globe it was "a kind of ecstatic experience."
But his devotion to new music was a stark departure from the traditionalism of his father and maternal grandfather, conductor and violinist Adolf Busch. Together, Rudolf Serkin and the Busch and Moyse music families founded the Marlboro school and chamber festival in Vermont, creating a classical-music incubator that shaped legions of young musicians, including Serkin.
"I like music that I can let enter my head and body, and live with," he told the Times in 1973, explaining that he listened to Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin, the Grateful Dead, John Coltrane and Sun Ra in addition to classical works. Among the latter, his favorites included Arnold Schoenberg's keyboard compositions, which he recorded in full, and Olivier Messiaen's eight-movement "Quartet for the End of Time," which he performed roughly 150 times with his chamber group the Tashi Quartet.
Serkin recorded numerous albums for RCA Red Seal Records, performed solo recitals around the world, accompanied leading orchestras and chamber groups, and taught at the Juilliard School, Tanglewood, Curtis Institute of Music and Bard College Conservatory of Music. Tall and thin, with a piercing gaze behind a pair of large glasses, he eschewed publicity and once declared that he'd "rather play 20 concerts before 3,000 people than give one interview."
Early on, it seemed that his music career might collapse under the weight of professional pressures and family expectations. Beginning in the late 1960s, when he was in his mid-20s and primarily focused on standard repertory, Serkin abandoned the piano to embark on soul-searching journeys to Mexico and India. He became interested in religion, immersing himself in the Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu faiths, and recalled ending his Mexico trip after hearing a radio broadcast of Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto wafting on the breeze.
It was the kind of loose, emotionally intense performance that had long eluded him. For years, he told the Times, he had been "playing concerts largely out of compulsion. . . . I had just fallen into it without ever deciding for myself that it was what I wanted to do." He returned from his travels with a more relaxed approach to music, even as he maintained an academic rigor that he learned from his father, studying composers' letters and examining first editions of their scores.
"The idea so many musicians have - that you have to act out the music for the audience, to supply it as a solidified object - is death," he said. "Music is change, it's process, not a static thing. And if you want to be part of that process you have to continue to grow."
The fifth of seven children,Peter Adolf Serkin was born in Manhattan on July 24, 1947. His middle name was an homage to his grandfather Busch, whom the Bohemian-born Rudolf Serkin began performing with in Berlin as a teenager; both men immigrated to the United States after the outbreak of World War II.
His mother, the former Irene Busch, was also a musician who played piano, violin and viola. She was credited with helping to keep the Marlboro festival afloat after Adolf's death in 1952, and it was there that Serkin made his formal debut, performing a Haydn concerto under conductor Alexander Schneider.
Serkin studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, taking lessons from Polish-born virtuoso Mieczyslaw Horszowski, American pianist Lee Luvisi and his own father before graduating in 1964. Two years later, his recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations earned him a Grammy Award for most promising new classical recording artist.
In 1967, at age 19, he made his grand-scale New York debut, performing Beethoven's notoriously difficult Diabelli Variations at Philharmonic Hall. His ambition and mannerisms, which included humming and crouching over the keys, spurred debate among critics such as Harold C. Schonberg, who wrote in the Times: "His career can go one of two ways - into that of an eccentric, or into that of an unconventional pianist with all kinds of unusual ideas that will be made convincing by intellectual strength."
In effect, Serkin had it both ways, angering some members of the music establishment with his hippie attire and unconventional music selections before gaining widespread recognition as a bridge between old and new musical traditions. Through the Tashi Quartet, formed in 1973 and named for the Tibetan word for good fortune, he also helped bring younger audiences to the repertoire, touring alongside violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.
"Mr. Serkin's recitals compel a focused quiet that is almost Oriental," cultural critic Leslie Kandell later wrote in the Times. "His best interpretations are strikingly pristine, as if an immense intellect were illuminating notes from the bottom. To say he is lost in his playing does not give the right image. He is found in it."
He died at his home in Red Hook, N.Y., from pancreatic cancer, said his manager, Shirley Kirshbaum.
His marriages to Wendy Spinner and Regina Touhey ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Karina Serkin Spitzley; four children from his second marriage, Maya, Elena, Stefan and William Serkin; a brother; three sisters; and two grandchildren.
Serkin's recitals often featured a mix of old and new, surveying hundreds of years of musical tradition in less than 90 minutes. But he dismissed suggestions that he was trying to update old works, telling the Globe in 1987 that he aimed "to project the up-to-date-ness that already exists in the music."
Composers like Bach and Beethoven "were so infamous in their own day for being outlandish, outrageous," he continued. "That's expressed in the music in a very healthy way. Like crazy sanity. Wild discipline. I try to relate to these pieces now as part of our own lives, in a very personal way, with feeling and emotion, but never with a concern that I want to show the listener how deep my feelings are."