PIANIST, A Biography of Eugene Istomin. By James Gollin. Ex Libris. Illustrated. 474 pages. $23.99 paperback, $35 hardcover from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
In 1946, noted pianist Eugene Istomin summered in Menemsha. He shared a house with Rae Gabis (who later made Chilmark her year-round home and was a founder of the Thrift Shop) and her daughter, Shirley. A year later, Istomin made another summer visit, in which he and Shirley played Mendelssohn’s Allegro Brilliante together in the auditorium on the second floor of the Chilmark town hall.
Chilmark seasonal visitor James Gollin has now written an extensive biography of the noted pianist. They first met in 1997 when Gollin was at work on an earlier musical biography, Pied Piper; The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg, a work that in 2002 won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award as one of the previous year’s outstanding books on a musical subject.
Gollin and 72-year-old Istomin quickly became friends, and it was not long before Gollin was embarking on his second musical biography.
Istomin, the son of Russian immigrants (his father was of the nobility; his mother a daughter of a wealthy Jewish family), grew up in a Russian-Polish-Jewish neighborhood of New York, in a family devoted to music. As a boy, he studied music privately, and then at the Mannes School and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where his family moved so he could attend the school.
It was in Philadelphia, as a teenager, that he met Rae and Shirley Gabis, and became enamored of the slightly older Shirley. She, however, was more interested then in another Curtis student, Leonard Bernstein — also a summer Vineyarder. She later married the composer George Perle.
Gollin writes not only of Istomin’s career as a classical pianist on the concert stage, but of his love of books and of art and of baseball; of his longtime acquaintance with and admiration for Spanish cellist Pablo Casals and of his midlife marriage to Casal’s widow, Marta.
Pianist is filled with the names of the outstanding musicians of Istomin’s day — Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Horowitz, Bernstein and many others. This is a book for serious music-lovers
— Phyllis Meras