He’s one of the world’s top pianists — and an Officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of the 2008 Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
Anton Kuerti has performed with leading orchestras across Canada, the United States and nearly 40 other countries. But the outspoken master pianist is humble at heart. He doesn’t drive a flashy, luxury car. He owns a 2000 Ford Focus station wagon. And he plans to dump it soon.
“I’m not a car buff. I don’t give a damn about cars. As a matter of fact, I really think I should give up my car. I really don’t use it that much. I use a bicycle a lot around the city, I use public transit. We should all rid ourselves of these evil machines.”
“A lot of people are in love with their … cars. You open a door next to them in the parking lot and you make the tiniest, tiniest little mark on a piece of trim and they go berserk!
“A car is a useful, polluting, noisy, dangerous gadget. Owning any car already says something about you that’s not very positive,” says Kuerti, whose schedule is jam-packed well into 2010.
He’s teaching master classes at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto in March and in the Netherlands shortly after. That’s in addition to concerts in the Hague, Toronto, London, and Ottawa — just to name a few places. His repertoire includes 50 piano concertos; he has recorded all Beethoven concertos and sonatas as well as all Schubert sonatas.
After nine years, his Focus has less than 100,000 kilometres on it. While he doesn’t drive it often, he can’t deny its practicality. “My wife was a cellist and my youngest son is a cellist. We’re often lugging two cellos plus a huge amount of other stuff.
“It’s not a big car. It’s definitely not an SUV. But you put down the back seat and you can get two cellos and a whole mess of other things inside. And it’s got a roof rack so you can attach some stuff up there.”
When touring the world, Kuerti often rents cars. “I always get the economy or budget size, but very often they upgrade me, sometimes against my will.
“I remember I reserved a small car and they were all out of everything and they gave me this huge SUV. And I was really embarrassed to drive up to hotels or friends with this huge, big vehicle,” says Kuerti, who was born in Vienna, grew up in the United States and has lived in Canada for the past 35 years.
“When I was a kid I used to know and recognize all the makes. They all seem the same now to me. I don’t even know what I’m driving when I pick up a rental.”
But he does remember doing a “drive-away” — transporting a car for someone from Denver to Los Angeles at 22. “I had to drive a Lincoln Mark V — a really gaudy, ostentatiously expensive vehicle and I was really embarrassed.
“At one point, I ran out of gas in the middle of the desert. Someone came along and gave me a ride to the gas station — it was particularly humiliating with this vehicle. I quickly said, ‘This is not mine! This is not mine!’ ”
On occasion, his cars have come in handy. “I’m a fairly political animal. I had a Volkswagen and I was living in New York during the Vietnam War. A friend of mine devised a way of using the car to print messages on the road.
“We took a tire and sculpted into it ‘US out of Vietnam’ and we made a hole so somebody sitting in the backseat could hold a paint roller onto the tire and print this message near the sidewalk.
“We made a route in the middle of the night, 3 o’clock in the morning, in front of The New York Times, the UN. It didn’t work very well — if you looked at it carefully, you could read it.
“If I had more experience as a printer, we would have done better,” laughs Kuerti, who has performed benefit concerts for Oxfam, SOS Children’s Villages and WaterCan.
Kuerti has a clean driving record on the road; but when it comes to parking lots, it’s a different story.
“I was at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton. In the parking lot I miscalculated and all I did was broke one of the brake light plastic things. I left my name, address, phone number on the windshield. I said I’m sorry I did this. I’m glad to pay for it. And the bill came to something like $600!
“Nobody would pay themselves to fix that. But when somebody else does it, then they want to get everything they can out of the insurance company,” he says, exasperated.
Behind the wheel, Kuerti doesn’t tune into classical music, particularly when driving in the United States. “I listen to local radio stations more out of sociological interest, especially in the Bible Belt. You scan from station to station and it’s some garbage music or sports talk or religious fanaticism.
“I find out that a random teenager living in those areas is never going to hear a piece of great music, which is a pity.
“That’s one way CBC and PBS have helped interest a lot of people in music where their families had no interest,” says Kuerti, an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Conservatory.
Kuerti will bid farewell to his Focus soon. “After the next big repair, I’m going to junk this one and I think I’ll join one of these rental clubs where you can take the car for an hour occasionally.
“If I were to get another car, I think it would be a Smart car — a really tiny thing that runs on water.”
Or he’ll stick with a bike. “I don’t want a fancy bike either because I want to be able to leave my bicycle unlocked if I go into a store briefly. So if somebody steals it, I just get another used $50 bike and that’s it.”
Globe and Mail Update Published on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009