Arnaldo Cohen’s love of classical music and his affinity for playing piano and violin began when one of his father’s dental patients, a music teacher in Rio de Janeiro, urged that the Cohen children be given music lessons.
His parents decided that Arnaldo’s sister Miriam should study piano “which was an instrument for a woman, and I should play violin because it was for a man,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 22 phone interview.
Despite his proficiency with the violin, he was drawn to his sister’s keyboard. “I would copy what she was playing, and she would be really pissed off at me,” he said.
Arnaldo’s mother complained to the teacher about creating “a war in our home,” said Cohen. “The teacher was very wise. He told my parents, ‘If your son likes piano so much, why doesn’t he start piano?’ My mother said, ‘OK.’”
So, Cohen concluded, “the reason I started piano was that I was driving my sister crazy.”
Whatever his original motivation, piano playing became the center of Cohen’s life; during his long career, the artist, now 67, has soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Houston Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, he will share his musical talents with an audience at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston in the first of the synagogue’s “The Jewish Legacy of the Piano — A Year of Celebration” series.
Cohen’s career might have taken a different direction, based on advice from his father, who suggested that his son pursue a more lucrative career as an engineer.
So along with the violin, he studied engineering, but, he said, “I never gave up the piano. You can imagine how crazed my life was, but I was always playing piano,” he said.
Cohen finally told his father he had dropped his engineering major — one semester before graduating.
But Cohen never dropped his musical studies, especially after a friend introduced him to pianist Jacques Klein, a virtuoso of both jazz and classical piano.
“I played for this great pianist, and he told me I had all the ingredients to become a good pianist,” he said. Klein agreed to become his teacher pro bono.
After earning his diploma in violin, Cohen became a violinist in the opera house orchestra in Rio. He later went to Italy, where, in 1972, he won first prize in the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition.
After living in England, Cohen was offered a tenured professorship at the prominent Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Ind., where he lives today.
Although his repertoire is in the European classical tradition, Cohen said his work is influenced subtly by bossa nova and other Brazilian music, as well as his father’s childhood in Persia and his mother’s in Ukraine.
“In Brazil the right recipe for music is to put Persian and Ukrainian together, and when you are born in Brazil you feel absolutely the influence of Carnival, and music is so important there,” he said. “It is inevitable to absorb all this culture. Music has many different accents and dialects.
“For me, the right notes and the correct keys are not the most important thing. It’s like when I am talking. I have never learned English in my life,” he said with unwarranted modesty. “I’m doing a very good improvisation, like a jazz musician. These are my jazz pipes. I like jazz but I am not a fanatic. One of the greatest pianists and talents I have ever heard in my life was Art Tatum,” an Ohio-born African-American with a broad, sweeping style and widely respected technique. “For me he was number one.”
Cohen said though he is “not religious at all” he thinks it is “fantastic that a synagogue brings culture together with faith or religion, or the soul. I think that’s what music is about. It is a wonderful bridge between you and yourself.”
“As Jews I think culture and knowledge are in our blood,” he said. “It is not by chance the number of doctors and the Nobel Prizes that Jews have won. I don’t think Jewish people are more talented or more intelligent. I think it is because we are given by our parents multiple opportunities to develop those talents in a particular way. And of course, the institution of the Jewish Mother means you have to be the first, the best.”