Spring 2014

Remembering Norbert

Pianist ensures his uncle won't be forgotten

Feature Image
Roger Peltzman '86 dedicated his first CD to his uncle, the late Norbert Stern.

It was the biggest performance of his life, but moments before, it felt more like a walk down the green mile. Roger Peltzman ’86 stood behind the curtain, his palms clammy as he waited to perform.

More than 200 people were there to hear him play. He made sure he dressed comfortably — a silk Tori Richard shirt, black dress pants and a fresh pair of Florsheim shoes — even though his preferred practice attire is shorts, no shirt. As he entered stage left, through the same door his beloved Beatles once walked, he took a bow, sat down at the 9-foot Steinway piano and began to play his first show at Carnegie Hall.

Peltzman was never a prodigy. Now 52, he did not become serious about playing the piano until he was in his twenties and about to graduate from Binghamton University. Yet, Peltzman has played at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall six times since that first performance in 2001 and is a renowned piano teacher in New York City, where he teaches at Third Street Music School Settlement.

In December, he completed his first album, Dedication: Roger Peltzman Plays Chopin, a tribute to his uncle Norbert Stern, a piano prodigy who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Stern was 21.

Music in his DNA

Raised by a musical family in Rockland County, N.Y., in the 1960s, Peltzman was a Beatlemaniac by age 2. He and his two brothers played piano as kids, but none stuck with it. Their mother, Beatrice, attended the opera and subscribed to the New York Philharmonic. She and Roger bonded over their shared love of music and art.

Beatrice Stern was 17 years old when the Nazis found her family in the attic of a Brussels apartment building. She escaped through a window and never saw her mother, father or brother, Norbert, again. She eventually made her way to the United States, where she married Nils Peltzman, a pharmacist. He died when Roger was 12.

“I think she could have been a great musician if the war and being a woman didn’t interfere with all that,” Peltzman says.

Denial and acceptance

When it was time to go to college, Peltzman chose music as a hobby and film as a career. He says he was lucky to get into Binghamton University. His high school grades weren’t great, but he showed strong potential in his field. With a recommendation from avant-garde director and cinema professor Ken Jacobs, Peltzman was accepted in 1979 as a “special talent student.”

He studied film, but was more dedicated to his pop radio show at WHRW, movies in Johnson City and concerts by the Talking Heads, the Clash and the Kinks in the West Gym.

It wasn’t until his junior year, during a semester in London, that Peltzman realized he missed playing piano. Maybe it was the strong beer — Dogbolter, it was called — brewed at a tiny pub called Frog & Firkin. Maybe it was the battered upright piano tucked in the corner of the pub or the one in the lobby of the hostel where he was staying. Whatever the reason, Peltzman found himself drawn back to music, and he began playing jazz, blues and pop tunes.

His Binghamton classmate and London roommate, Bob Jaffe ’84, suggested that he audition for lessons when they returned to Binghamton.

Peltzman recalls not playing well in the audition, but he showed enough talent to get lessons from faculty member Mike Holober. After a semester, Peltzman approached Seymour Fink, Binghamton’s noted piano professor, for lessons. But Fink didn’t want to take on a film major who was about to graduate.

So Peltzman started over as a music major, spending nearly a decade as a Binghamton student.

“With one credit shy of graduating with a film degree, I added music from scratch,” Peltzman says. “The moment I found music again, everything went into focus and I was able to change my whole life.”
Teaching Peltzman was always a pleasure, Fink says. “He was not what you would call a ‘natural’ pianist. He had to work for the things he achieved. But what he had was this incredible ability to stick with it.”

Outside of his regular lessons with Fink, Peltzman got additional coaching from another Binghamton professor, Walter Ponce, a world-famous pianist who now teaches at UCLA.

After graduating with honors in both film and music in 1986, Peltzman studied for two years at the Manhattan School of Music and then made a living as a recording engineer for rock records while playing piano on the side. By 2002, he was teaching piano at Third Street and offering private lessons. It was at Third Street that he met another of his mentors, pianist Edmund Arkus.

“If it weren’t for him, I couldn’t have gotten to where I am musically and technically,” Peltzman says of Arkus, who spent many long hours helping him perfect the pieces on the CD.

Fink, who teaches piano at Capital University in Ohio, spent a couple of days with Peltzman before he went to Brussels to record the CD. “He’s no longer a student trying to make a mark,” Fink says. “He’s there. You listen to him, and he sounds like a virtuoso. He just got there in a different way than most people.”

Making new memories

Uncle Norbert is present every time Peltzman places his fingers on the keys of a piano.

“What would Norbert think of this piece?” Peltzman sometimes asks himself during his four-hour practice sessions. “How would he play it? Would he think I’ve improved?”

Peltzman did not feel a strong connection to Norbert until, about four years ago, he began hearing from people who knew his uncle and his mother in Brussels.
One of those people was Ghislaine Hennessey, whose piano Norbert played while he was hiding from the Nazis.

In her search for Norbert and Beatrice Stern, she instead found Peltzman and his brothers — just a few months after Beatrice’s death. Hennessey told them how inspired she was by Norbert’s playing, describing it as spectacular.

“She wanted to make sure no one had forgotten Norbert Stern,” Peltzman recalls.

In 2010, he traveled to Brussels to meet Hennessey and others who knew his family. She still had the piano that Norbert had played, and she allowed Peltzman to play it.
Peltzman says he focused on “playing as beautifully as possible” for the woman, so the emotional impact of having played the same piano that Norbert had played didn’t hit him until later.

“I did kiss the piano before I left,” he says. “No one was around.”