On October 29, 1953, a small passenger plane en route from Australia crashed into a mountainside while making its descent into San Francisco International Airport. Ultimately attributed to pilot error (there was a heavy fog surrounding San Francisco that morning), the tragedy claimed the lives of nineteen people, including 31 year old American piano virtuoso William Kapell. Well known to Philadelphia Orchestra audiences as a favorite soloist of both Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, Kapell also enjoyed close acquaintance with many Curtis faculty, including then Curtis director Efrem Zimbalist.
Although kept busy by his myriad duties at Curtis, Zimbalist still found time to compose and, in early 1953, he completed his Piano Concerto in E-flat. In giving the copy of the unperformed work to Kapell to study, it is likely that Zimbalist intended to have him premiere the piece at some future date. Sadly, as history would have it, neither Kapell nor Zimbalist would get their respective opportunities. The sole copy of the score, taken by Kapell on his tour of Australia, also perished in the crash.
It was five years before Zimbalist, greatly grieved at the loss of Kapell, returned to his concerto. He rewrote it from memory and, in March 1959, it was premiered by Alexander Hilsberg and the New Orleans Philharmonic with soloist Lee Luvisi*. Although no known recording of Zimbalist’s concerto exists today (it was never released commercially), a reviewer at the time called it a “happy, romantic work,” with one musician noting “I thought a lot of dead composers had come to life, especially Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.” In December 1960 the work was again performed by Luvisi, this time with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy – an undoubtedly bittersweet moment for orchestra, conductor, and composer as they remembered the pianist, colleague, and friend – who died far too young.
*Lee Luvisi is a Curtis alum and former faculty member (1959-1963)