Joseph Kalichstein, Pianist of Subtlety and Refinement, Dies at 76

Joseph Kalichstein, an Israeli American pianist whose subtle, refined approach made him an exemplary chamber musician, especially as a member of the esteemed Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, died on March 31 in Manhattan. He was 76.

His son Avi said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

Across his career of more than 50 years, critics agreed that Mr. Kalichstein had an uncommon naturalness, whether in his earliest solo recitals or his later appearances on the chamber music circuit with his piano trio, in which he was joined by the violinist Jaime Laredo and the cellist Sharon Robinson.

Mr. Kalichstein had a sense of line and timing that set him apart even as a young virtuoso. His Carnegie Hall debut “carried enough impact to remind one of Horowitz, and that is not a small thing to say,” Donal Henahan wrote in The New York Times in 1967, adding that although there was still some brash impetuosity to Mr. Kalichstein’s playing, he could already sustain “a long, poetic arc as only a born musician can.”

That innate musicality made Mr. Kalichstein a stylish exponent of Schumann, Brahms and Mendelssohn, whose solo, chamber and concertante works he recorded with an apt balance of delicacy and drive.

Mr. Kalichstein’s credentials as a soloist were never in question after his 1969 victory in the prestigious Leventritt Competition, which led, among other appearances, to dates with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra under the conductor (and Leventritt juror) George Szell. But he found particular admiration as a chamber musician.

The venerable Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio came together by accident, after Mr. Kalichstein appeared as a late substitute for another elegant pianist, Rudolf Firkusny, in a program of Dvorak with his future partners — who were already husband and wife — and other musicians at the 92nd Street Y in 1976.

Mr. Kalichstein in an undated photo. His credentials as a soloist were never in question after his 1969 victory in the prestigious Leventritt Competition, but he found particular admiration as a chamber musician.

“In the end,” Mr. Kalichstein later recalled of that concert, “we all remarked how easy the performance was. We seemed to phrase together, breathe together, sing together. Sharon and Jaime came to me and said, ‘Maybe we should play together.’”

Their official debut as a trio came in 1977, in unusually auspicious surroundings: the East Room of the White House, during the inauguration festivities for President Jimmy Carter, who hired them on the advice of the conductor Robert Shaw.

From the start, the trio drew strong reviews for its poise and blend. Mr. Henahan suggested in 1978 that “while predictions as to its longevity and success would be pointless just yet,” the trio’s balance and evident good sense still brought to mind artists of the stature of the Guarneri String Quartet or, more to the point, the then-dominant Beaux Arts Trio.

The Beaux Arts lasted 53 years in name, but its initial membership endured for little more than a decade. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, arguably its successor in stature in concert halls if not on record, still had its original personnel at its last concert, in Phoenix on March 17 — 45 years after its debut.

Joseph Chaim Kalichstein, later known as Yossi to his friends, was born on Jan. 15, 1946, in Tel Aviv, the third child of Yitzhak and Mali (Bendit) Kalichstein. Fervent Zionists, they had tried to settle in Palestine in the 1920s, returning to Poland only to flee the fate that befell much of the rest of their family in the Holocaust.

Mr. Kalichstein played the piano from a young age and took lessons from Joshua Shor in Israel. He enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York in 1962, studying with Eduard Steuermann and Ilona Kabos. For his Carnegie Hall debut, he paid tribute with two works by Mr. Steuermann, a rarely heard Schoenberg acolyte who died in 1964.

After graduating in 1967, Mr. Kalichstein received a master’s degree from Juilliard in 1969 and considered doctoral work before his solo career took off. Sponsored by the Young Concert Artists after 1967, he played Beethoven in one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, in 1968, broadcast on CBS.

European as well as American performances followed. The Musical Times noted after Mr. Kalichstein’s European debut in 1970 that the impression he made in Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto — with the London Symphony and André Previn — “was not of the extreme brilliance and confidence expected from a young virtuoso so much as thoughtful, sensitive musicianship.”

Allan Kozinn of The New York Times in 1999 bracketed Mr. Kalichstein with pianists like Alfred Brendel and Richard Goode, as “a musician who searches beyond the dots on the page, recognizes the breadth of possibilities within a work and has the technique to give those possibilities life.”

Mr. Kalichstein was by then primarily known as a chamber musician, above all for his work with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, with which he cultivated a style of polished ease.

The trio recorded much of the core repertoire, including the complete Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms trios, as well as an exquisite set devoted to Ravel, for which Mr. Kalichstein contributed a moving account of the solo “Pavane Pour une Infante Défunte.” The trio commissioned works from such living composers as Arvo Pärt, André Previn and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, whose piano concerto Mr. Kalichstein recorded.

Mr. Kalichstein consulted for the Kennedy Center after 1997 and was artistic director of its chamber music series until his death. He became a member of the piano faculty at Juilliard in 1983 and added a chair in chamber music studies in 2003.

The pianist Emanuel Ax, a colleague at Juilliard, said in an interview that Mr. Kalichstein was “a remarkably direct and openhearted musician, in the best sense uncomplicated and natural.” He added that Mr. Kalichstein was a warm, witty teacher who did not impose his own views on his students, but “would think about the way someone was looking at a piece of music and try to help him or her attain the best possible of version of that.”

In addition to his son Avi, Mr. Kalichstein is survived by his wife, Rowain (Schultz) Kalichstein; another son, Rafi; and three grandchildren.

His wife had resolved to marry him before she had even met him, after being captivated by a recital he gave at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan in 1971. They were married later that year and were longtime residents of Maplewood, N.J., until moving to Rhode Island last year.

In 1994, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times asked Mr. Kalichstein whether he and the other members of the trio enjoyed greater fame as individual soloists or as a collective.

“It could very well be the trio,” he responded. “I certainly cannot complain if it’s one or the other. I hope people know me as someone with two different hats.”

“I want to have that balance,” he added. “In fact, that is my ideal.”

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