Classical Notes

The ballad of a happy pianist

Dichter returns after career-threatening disease, hand surgery

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 9, 2009

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Misha Dichter’s journey through purgatory began with a small dimple on the palm of his right hand, which he discovered in 2005. “I noticed it and thought, hmm, it’s a little hard in there,’’ he says by phone from his New York home. Dichter is a pianist who has the technical prowess to allow him to bring off some of the repertoire’s most taxing works - Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky - with relative ease, thanks in part to a pair of large hands. Gradually, though, he began wondering why passages that used to come so easily were now “feeling a little funny.’’

The alarm sounded for real in fall 2006, when Dichter found that he could no longer play the opening of Brahms’s Ballade in D minor, Opus 10. An unremarkable chord in the first measure requires the pianist to stretch the interval of a major sixth with the second and fifth fingers of the right hand. He’d covered much larger intervals with ease in the past and never thought twice about the chord in the Brahms. Now he simply couldn’t make his hand play it. “I panicked,’’ he says.

Hand injuries are the bane of many musicians; even when they make a full recovery, the potential loss of their access to music is enough to leave a lingering sense of trepidation. Dichter, who plays a recital at the Boston Conservatory on Tuesday, has only recently begun talking about his scare. He was suffering from a disease called Dupuytren’s contracture, in which the tissue in the palm thickens and tightens, causing the fingers to bend inward; eventually, they can no longer be straightened out.

The condition is generally hereditary, and it was familiar to Dichter in the most painful way: His father had suffered from it in the 1950s and endured two botched surgeries that failed to correct the problem. “My memories of his hands, to the end of his life, are of just horrendously contorted fingers, bent tightly toward the palm,’’ Dichter says.

With those memories making him initially resistant to surgery, the pianist talked to his doctor, who counseled a wait-and-see approach. So he kept trying to play and did what most of us do with a tough diagnosis: He went on the Internet. “And I read that there’s a point of no return if you wait,’’ he remembers. “You can’t even deal with it surgically.’’

Now Dichter really panicked. He discovered that he was no longer able to play Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a staple of his repertoire and the piece in which he had made his first recording, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1966. By now it was early 2007, and he was slated to play the piece in four months with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Dichter called a second doctor and was put on hold. In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, the hold music was the Tchaikovsky concerto. “You can’t make this stuff up,’’ he says.

Dichter underwent surgery in March of that year. After two weeks he began physical therapy and was told he could practice with his right hand - for five minutes a day. “You’re talking to somebody who works eight hours a day,’’ he laments. And like a heart patient recovering from bypass surgery, his diet was strictly limited: no Liszt, no Brahms, no Rachmaninoff. Instead: Scarlatti, Mozart, some Schubert.

“It was almost like Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ because I’d go up to seven minutes and the door of my library would swing open and my wife, Cipa would come in and shout, ‘Stop!’ She was really on my case, which was very, very helpful.’’

Meanwhile, deadlines loomed. Dichter had committed to playing a benefit concert in St. Louis in May, as well as the Tchaikovsky in Chicago in June. He was bound and determined to keep both dates, which meant he had to be at or close to 100 percent. The idea that he wouldn’t make it haunted him.

“I would have nightmares every night for four or five weeks after surgery,’’ he says. “The variant on the final-exam-of-the-course-you-never-took dream, which for me goes like this: The Chicago is tuning up, I have to play the Tchaikovsky, I look down, and I don’t have a hand.’’

The silver lining is that Dupuytren’s contracture is not a neurological disorder. Once the diseased tissue was removed, Dichter says, he found his muscle memory and technique intact.

In May, he walked out on stage in St. Louis and began to play the Brahms ballade that had initially stirred his anxiety. The fingers of his right hand easily stretched the interval of a major sixth, just as they had before. “And no one in the audience knew why, when I played that chord, I just started smiling to the heavens.’’

Tuesday’s concert will be Dichter’s first appearance in Boston in 15 years. He will open with the Brahms ballade.

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