Marion Zarzeczna teaches piano in three different places, with different formats in each location. Mondays and Fridays she instructs non-pianists at Philadelphia’s elite Curtis Institute, teaching what is called “supplementary piano.” Tuesdays she is available for private students of all ages at Rider University’s Westminster Conservatory in Princeton. At other times, she works with private students in her Trenton studio, crowding them into her small space in groups of a dozen for special Sunday sessions. In addition, she normally practices five or six hours a day. It’s a busy life.
The Trenton City Museum Society presents Zarzeczna in a concert at the Society’s Ellarslie Mansion in Cadwalader Park on Sunday, October 21. Her program includes works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, and Chopin.
A note on the venue: An Italianate villa, Ellarslie was built for Henry McCall of Philadelphia as a summer residence in 1848. In 1888 the city of Trenton acquired the property and its surrounding 80 acres for $50,000 to create Cadwalader Park, the city’s first public park. The museum that opened in Ellarslie in 1889 closed after several years. The building has been, variously, a residence for some of Trenton’s notable families, an ice cream parlor, a speakeasy, and the monkey house for the Trenton Zoo until the simians moved to Philadelphia. The Trenton City Museum, which opened in Ellarslie in 1978, contains historic and contemporary exhibits and is a site for cultural events.
In a telephone interview from her Trenton home Zarzeczna explains how she assembled the pieces for her Ellarslie program. “The program had to be 60 minutes long. First, you find the major pieces. Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata is long.” (Emil Gilels speeds through in 15 minutes. Claude Frank luxuriates in a leisurely 25-minute reading. Most performers require 17 to 19 minutes.) Next: Chopin’s Andante Spianato e Grande Polonaise Brillante, which takes 15 minutes. “It’s also long,” says Zarzeczna.
She will begin the performance with two contrasting transcriptions by Johann Sebastian Bach: his Organ Prelude in G Minor — “It has tremendous organ like sounds” — and his “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring — “a gentle piece.” She turns to Claude Debussy after intermission, playing his “Poissons d’Or” (“Goldfish”) — “Very imaginative. You can see them swish their tails”; “La Soiree dans Grenade” (“Evening in Granada”) — “It has a habanera rhythm and is ethereal and evocative”; and his “Toccata” — “lots of notes.”
Zarzeczna has performed in Ellarslie before. In addition, at the time that the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2002, she had appeared with the orchestra as a soloist more frequently than any other artist in its history.
Zarzeczna grew up in Trenton in a family that she describes as “unmusical,” but the pattern seems to be changing. “My older brother, Joseph, is artistic,” she says. “He’s almost musical and listens to records like crazy. My younger brother, Paul, listens to the radio, any kind of music.” She is currently teaching piano to her seven-year-old grand niece, Paul’s grandchild.
A neighbor of Zarzeczna’s family discovered her musicality. “My family had a candy store on the corner,” she says. “Ruth Burns lived in the middle of the block. She was my mentor and took me to concerts. She was very Irish and very mother-like. Her sister, Dorothy, was a pianist. They would sing or play, and I would sing or play. They told my parents that I should have music lessons.” Zarzeczna calls them her aunts, though they are not biologically related. She now lives in a house that belonged to Ruth Burns.
At age six Zarzeczna started lessons with Marian Hackenberger Flintzer, a church organist, who came to the house. “She had piano classes, and we had to memorize information about the composers. We had to talk about Mozart, when and where he was born, things like that.” Flintzer was the first of several teachers Zarzeczna mentions. She talks about all of them with a large and loving gratitude.
At age 12 Zarzeczna began studies at Philadelphia’s New School of Music, where she worked with Martha Massena and Vladimir Sokoloff. “Massena taught me to read music so I could play anything,” she says. Her first assignment for Massena was the fiendish E-flat major concerto of Franz Liszt. In her innocence, Zarzeczna mastered the piece without realizing its difficulty. “Massena never told me that anything was hard.” From Sokoloff she learned about musical form.
The Polish Arts Club of Trenton sponsored Zarzeczna’s first recital when she was 18, as well as subsequent recitals. “I’m Polish. The club is still extant,” she says. “Through them I got to play with the Polish National Radio Orchestra when they toured the United States. It was a thrill.”
As a student at Trenton’s Cathedral High School Zarzeczna studied violin with Joseph Higham, concertmaster of the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra. Given to self-deprecation, she says, “I was never very great, but I was a good reader.” She was concertmaster of Cathedral High School’s orchestra and began playing chamber music.
Zarzeczna relished playing two instruments. “I discovered that it was fun to play with others. That’s part of the charm of the violin. Playing chamber music was wonderful because of the others. Playing in a symphony orchestra was glorious. When you play piano, you can accompany other musicians, and that’s fun, too.”
After high school, Zarzeczna won a highly-coveted place at Curtis, where her mentor was the exemplary Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who concertized until his late 90s and died at the age of 100 in 1992.
“My violin playing lasted about a year after high school,” Zarzeczna says. “There was too much to do at Curtis.”
Immediately after graduating from Curtis in 1954, Zarzeczna won a Fulbright fellowship that enabled her to study for two years at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini in Florence. Her project there was to investigate the manuscripts of Lodovico Giustini, an organist from Pistoia, who in 1732 published a set of keyboard sonatas that specified using piano. Giustini’s collection was the first known publication to call for piano. The next music intended for piano appeared a generation later, in the 1760s.
By the time her Fulbright expired, Zarzeczna was not ready to return to the United States. “I had run out of money,” she says, “but I wanted to stay in Florence. So I came home, gave a concert, and earned enough to stay for two more years.” During the next two years she gave concerts in England, Germany, and Italy.
In 1962 Zarzeczna joined the Curtis staff. Since 1972 she has taught at the Westminster Conservatory.
Comparing teaching the non-piano majors at Curtis with teaching in New Jersey, she says, “They’re used to reading a single line. With piano they practice each hand separately before they put the two hands together. They get to be able to read both staffs at once.”
Zarzeczna’s personal history is one that makes it easy for her to empathize with the talented young Curtis students. Naturally musical, she had to learn to discipline her musicality. Surveying her mentors, she talks about her pursuit of imposing order on her instincts. “When I studied with Horszowski, I used to imitate what he did. I could imitate greatly.”
After Curtis Zarzeczna studied with Isabelle Sant’Ambrogio. “Her teaching was totally different from Horszowski’s. I learned how to teach from her. She taught me to think.”
After Sant’Ambrogio died, Zarzeczna worked with Jascha Zayde in New York City. “From him I learned precision and articulation. I learned not to ham it up.”
Vladimir Sokoloff, of Philadelphia’s New School, with whom she studied before she finished high school, already knew that she had to tame her musical passions. “Playing the E-flat major Chopin Etude for Sokoloff,” she remembers, “I was all over the place and he told me, `Now play it intelligently.’” He was trying to get her to use the same neurons she now engages to make her life fit into a 24-hour day.
Marion Zarszeczna, piano, Sunday, October 21, 3 p.m. Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park. “Classical Sunday” features works of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy. $15 includes refreshments. 609-989-1191.