As a youngster, Michael Slavin gave every indication that he might be another Van Cliburn, the world-renowned American pianist who started winning competitions at an early age. Slavin was accepted into the pre-college division of Juilliard School at 9, performed at Lincoln Center at 11 and a couple of years later won a competition at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But as he hit his teens and began feeling the pressure of competition, he decided to follow a different beat and instead carved out a successful career as an ophthalmologist.
Now, 60 years after playing his first chords, he fulfilled that early promise in June, taking second place — and $1,500 — in the amateur portion of the international competition named for the famed pianist. According to cliburn.org, there were “doctors and lawyers, cell biologists and sommeliers” among the 68 competitors from 18 countries in the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.
That accomplishment is even more amazing considering that Slavin didn’t resume playing piano seriously until 10 years ago, when he retired from his successful medical practice.
“When I got back into all of this, I was just playing for myself,” says Slavin, who is 65 and lives in Manhasset. “Then I decided, why don’t I take a teacher and let him see how I play and give me some advice?”
He took lessons for two years, and during that period mastered the works of Chopin, and he also regained his confidence, he says. Success at the Cliburn event in Fort Worth, Texas, is the culmination of several years of his “comeback.” Since 2012, Slavin has entered several prestigious contests, starting with the Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, in which he placed first in the concerto division. (Thomas Yu, who beat out Slavin in the Cliburn this year, won third prize.)
“It was more out of curiosity when I entered the first one. Then when I won, it got me excited and I entered more,” Slavin says. In all, he’s won four of the six amateur competitions he’s entered. (He placed second in the others.) Among the most notable was winning both the Paris Concours and the Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2015.
The Paris match began with 100 entrants, and from there they were reduced to 10. “I shared first prize with a Frenchman,” Slavin says. “They’re not thrilled about winning with Americans.”
Even more difficult, he says, was the Chopin competition. “When I went back into music, I practically learned the entire solo repertoire of Chopin except for some earlier works.”
He also practices two hours a day, which is not nearly as much as he’d like. A back injury about 10 years ago left him with peripheral neuropathy, which gave him severe foot pain. “I can’t sit and practice without taking lots of breaks. It’s two hours a day physically but in four sessions,” he says.
Entering the Cliburn competition was an arduous task, Slavin says. It starts with the lengthy application, which Slavin says “takes hours to fill out.” He also had to submit a 15- to 20-minute unedited video of himself with his hands in view the entire time. “Like I’m really going to slip away and put in Vladimir Horowitz’s hands,” he jokes.
From there, the application gets reviewed and the applicants are chosen.
“He played everything with total connect,” says Andre-Michel Schub, one of the seven judges at the Cliburn competition. “It was very intelligently thought-out playing with a wonderful sense of color.”
Most impressive, adds Schub, who won the gold medal at the Cliburn competition at the professional level in 1981, was Slavin’s performance of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” Op. 68. Schub told Slavin he should record it.
For Slavin, the greatest thrill was getting to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37, with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. “It forces you to listen. You have to be a chamber music player as well as a soloist. It’s a pleasure having someone else on stage conduct it. And to be able to smile at one another,” Slavin says. “Amateur pianists do not get the opportunities to do that outside of competitions.”
Slavin says he wouldn’t have done anything different in the competition, and Schub adds that ultimately, the final decision was totally subjective.
“Everyone hears things differently,” Schub says. “There were a lot of really outstanding players and he distinguished himself among them.”
His first set of keys
Slavin says the piano was introduced into his family’s home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn when he was 5. His parents decided that his brother, who was 10, should take lessons, but it soon became apparent which of the boys had more musical aptitude. “He studied for three years, and I was the curious little brother who hung around during the piano lesson,” Slavin says. “But I was more than curious because after a while I was able to play the lesson.”
Slavin’s talent was nurtured when he started attending Juilliard. To qualify, he had to audition for an admissions panel, which included the person who would become his teacher. Slavin received a partial scholarship. At the end of each year, students had to take a final test in order to qualify for the next school year.
As a student there, Slavin appeared in recitals at Juilliard and at Town Hall, a famous recital hall in Manhattan, all of which helped him become more comfortable performing before an audience, he says. At 11, he auditioned for and was accepted to perform with Thomas Sherman and the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center, one of the first times he played with other musicians in front of an audience. He played the first movement of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 26 “Coronation.”
“It was very thrilling and very challenging,” Slavin says. “A few weeks before the performance, the conductor starting making all kinds of changes. Here’s this 11-year-old kid who had learned to play it one way and was now being told to do things different. I hate to make any changes now at all.”
As a youngster, he remembered being confident, sometime to the point of cockiness, he says. But at about age 15, he had a change of tune when he began to realize he wasn’t the only young person with talent.
“I started listening to other children my age play and settled down a little. Then I developed some nerves and got a little stage fright playing the piano and going on stage,” he recalls. “Nobody had any understanding in those days of what that meant.”
Slavin also admits that the commitment needed to succeed as a concert pianist was at times more demanding than he would have liked.
“You need to love it to the point where you don’t mind if everybody else is outside playing ball while you’re sitting in the house playing the piano,” he says. “You’re spending a good portion of your youth at something, so you’d better love it.”
Life after Juilliard
Slavin, whose passion for science was as great as his love for music, got accepted to Cooper Union, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then attended medical school and established his ophthalmology practice in Brooklyn.
In 1975, he married his wife, Nava, and they have two children and four grandchildren. In all that time, he dabbled at the piano and only immersed himself in it again after retiring.
Now he’s hoping to begin playing concerts more frequently. In 2014, he performed at the winter concert at Bayard Cutting Arboretum and wowed the crowd. “Michael’s performance was stellar,” says Lynda Moran, executive director of the Islip Arts Council, which sponsored the event. In October, he’s been asked to play with the New York Piano Society at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan.
“I feel very calm in the second limb of my voyage in music,” Slavin says. “When you’re 16 or 17 and don’t do well, you could be throwing away a career. I’m calm now because there’s no apparent consequence. I played in front of 3,000 people and seven judges at the Cliburn competition and had no thought of any of that.”