WASHINGTON — PIANIST Peter Serkin, an audience of one in a darkened concert hall, watches the stage as raptly as a small boy at a Saturday matinee. On stage, conductor Mstislav (``Slava'') Rostropovich, is rising from his high red stool like a lion about to spring. ``Quick, like shock!'' Slava tells his National Symphony Orchestra. That's how he wants this Brahms passage played.
Mr. Serkin listens quietly but avidly. As the rehearsal continues, he becomes more and more taut, until finally he is wound up like an alarm clock about to go off. He has reason to be: He and Stravinsky are the next act.
But when it's his turn, Serkin strolls on stage, all nonchalance in a brown tweed jacket. Watch what he does, however, and you know how he really feels. He sits down calmly on an orchestra chair as they wheel in his Steinway grand piano. Then he puts his arms straight out at his sides and whirls his hands furiously, like windmills, for several minutes. Then he shakes his fingers out like clothes flapping dry on a line.
Finally he's relaxed enough to sit down at the piano and play the Stravinsky Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. He sits tall in the saddle, his white running shoes pounding the pedals in an angular, electric performance that is so exciting the orchestra stamps its feet in praise at the end.
``I get very nervous and worked up about each concert, but I actually do about each rehearsal as well, and even practicing,'' says Serkin during a break in the rehearsal here at Kennedy Center. ``I think I've learned to live with that and make friends with that, rather than to feel so desperate as I used to. But, at the same time, I don't think I'll ever be cavalier about playing concerts.''
Since last Wednesday Serkin has been facing a new concert challenge, as he plays the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, with Hugh Wolff conducting the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. The final performance is tomorrow night.
``That's another happy piece,'' Serkin says of the Ravel. It gives him great joy, like the Mozart Piano Concert No. 16 in D Major on the National Symphony program being rehearsed during my visit. Later, in concert here, he pours out the Mozart with great love, at times almost cradling the keys, contemplative, slow, and sweet, as though polishing each note. Some of the passages are small and perfect as a string of pearls, others cascading in a waterfall of music with a great rush.
``This Mozart Concerto is rarely played, and it's such a joyous, ebullient piece,'' he says. ``I think Mozart's music - or Bach and Beethoven, too - kind of teach us again a very human quality - a real sense of, well, uplifting us.'' We are talking in the Green Room of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with its red velvet Victorian furniture. Serkin, whose long fingers had been moving as fast as steel hummingbirds in the Mozart concerto, takes deep breaths and relaxes tentatively. He is an intense six-footer with bluish hazel eyes behind glasses. There are no crashing chords about Peter Serkin. He dresses quietly, on this day in muted browns, blacks, and grays. And he carries with him, like a carnation in his lapel, a quiet, quizzical composure. He talks of music in a soft, wondering voice.
Serkin teethed on Beethoven and Mozart as the fourth of six children in a highly musical family. His father is the celebrated pianist Rudolf Serkin, his grandfather the violinist Adolf Busch, his great uncle the conductor Fritz Busch. He grew up hearing famous musicians play at the Marlboro Music Festival his father founded in Vermont.
As a child, Peter read scores the way other kids read Dr. Seuss. Rudolf Serkin once admitted, ``He started learning music a long time before I knew what he was doing. I doubted that he was talented. He was so full of tension when he played: I didn't realize that was his real gift.''
Peter Serkin is startled at that statement and, when asked if he thinks that tension in playing is his gift, murmers, ``Not particularly.'' He's no showboat, but a pianist less interested in finding his own style than ``always looking for the music's own voice, the composer's conception of his own piece. ... For me, it's not so much a question of self-expression as to express the music itself. I try to be egoless ... in relation to the music, and paradoxically that seems to give it more character.''
When Serkin performs at places like Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, he bows shyly in the black-tie uniform that soloists traditionally wear. But there was a time, when in his 20s, that this talented maverick played concerts in a Grateful Dead T-shirt. ``I was thinking that we shouldn't regard ourselves as waiters, particularly, serving up the music'' in black tie. ``I'm not just performing an act.''
SERKIN was a child prodigy who made his New York debut at 12 in a Haydn piano concerto, with his mentor, Alexander Schneider, conducting. By the time he graduated from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Peter Serkin was successful enough to earn his living concertizing. Then at 19 he hit a boulder in his career, when his performance of Beethoven's ``Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli'' at Philharmonic Hall received some scathing reviews.
He left town and left music for a year-and-a-half to travel to Mexico and the Far East with his first wife, musician Wendy Spinner, by whom he has a daughter, Karina. His second wife is photographer Regina Touhey, by whom he has a daughter, Elena.
Serkin returned to start a chamber music quartet, Tashi, with musician friends. When he later went back to performing as a soloist, his career began to soar. In a record review of Peter Lieberson's Piano Concerto, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tim Page later wrote in the New York Times, ``As for Mr. Serkin, he seems to me America's preeminent young pianist - his intelligence and perceptivity invariably take the listener directly to the heart of the music.'' And Washington Post critic Lon Tuck, reviewing a Serkin performance of three final Beethoven sonatas here, wrote, ``What most characterized Serkin's performance was a muted intensity that kept one's concentration on the mysteries behind the music and seldom brought attention to his actual playing, which was phenomenal.''
Peter Serkin says that, in many ways, ``it was a gift to have Rudolf Serkin as a father'' because of his devotion to the music, his seriousness of purpose, his scholarliness, and ``a certain kind of modesty, too, in always wanting to know pieces better ..., find out what the composer really had in mind.''
The darker side of the gift of a famous father was ``other people harping on that, as an issue, and feeling sometimes - especially when I was growing up - that I was a nonentity in some ways, an invisible nonperson [who] was just related to in terms of my father.
``But now it's not that much of an issue, because now I'm not looking for that kind of confirmation of my own existence. I'm satisfied just doing what I'm trying to do.''
What he's trying to do now is take a break from the demanding world of 60 international concerts a year in order to concentrate on solo piano pieces which he's commissioned from 10 contemporary composers, ranging from Luciano Berio to Toru Takemitsu.
Serkin will play these works in several cities during the 1989-90 concert season. As always, his aim is ``to play in a kind of effortless way, if possible.''