March 12, 2001 12:00 PM

In an unadorned assembly room, pianist Clive Lythgoe looks out over an audience made up of low-wage workers, formerly homeless people and the unemployed and introduces a piece by a Russian composer. “Most of Rachmaninoff’s music was about suffering,” he tells his listeners at Holland House, a government-subsidized residence in New York City. “This next piece was his most popular. And whenever he played it, he had a frown on his face. He’d forgotten to copyright it. He never saw a dime of the money!”

Lythgoe, whose line draws a laugh from the crowd and whose performance of the Prelude in C-sharp Minor earns a standing ovation, is far from the great halls of his heyday. But at 73, the man once called Britain’s Liberace is thrilled to play here—and at homeless shelters, AIDS hospices, nursing homes and schools. “We’re lucky to have him,” says Theodore Anderman, president of Horizon Concerts, a nonprofit organization where Lythgoe serves as executive director. “He has so much skill, so much fervor for what we do.”

For a time in the ’60s, those traits made Lythgoe a crossover sensation, with record sales rivaling those of the Rolling Stones. “The audience’s applause,” he says, “was the affection I’d wanted for so long.” Growing up in Wimbledon, the only child of a Royal Air Force officer turned civil servant and his homemaker wife, “I was never hugged,” Lythgoe recalls. “When I kissed my mother for the first time, she was 92.” But he found a way to fill the void at age 7, when he was entranced by the piano player in a Carmen Miranda movie. “I was screaming, ‘Mommy, I want to do that!’ ” He began lessons with his church organist soon afterward.

Unlike his teacher, who lost his right arm in a bombing raid while walking past Lythgoe’s house, Lythgoe survived World War II unscathed. And at age 20, after winning scholarships to study music in London, he made his debut at the Royal Albert Hall. Critics were soon hailing his virtuosity and intense stage presence.

As his career took wing, however, his sense of self foundered. In the mid-’60s he hosted a popular classical TV series called The Lythgoe Touch. Meanwhile, he says, “I became a prima donna. I was throwing things, having tantrums.” A doctor prescribed an addictive stimulant to even out his moods. Lythgoe eventually quit cold turkey but then turned to tranquilizers to help him cope with the strains of stardom and constant touring. Although 1967’s Clive Lythgoe Plays made the British Top 10, he says, he soon realized “that none of this”—not even the hand-built Bristol car or the Sussex, England, manor—”was what I wanted.”

Lythgoe’s Carnegie Hall debut, in 1973, was the turning point. He spent two days waiting for The New York Times review, “almost comatose in a Valium haze. The review was glowing, but it didn’t matter. I was living out of a suitcase. I looked at myself and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ ” He knew he had to find another way of life. And he did so three years later, when he took a job as dean of faculty at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, which offers low-cost lessons for kids.

Still, Lythgoe found that he missed performing—just not, he says, “in that big-time, stressful way.” So when Horizon asked him to become music director in 1986, he jumped at the chance. Back then the organization sent musicians only to nursing homes. But Lythgoe expanded the mission. “I wanted to make people realize that classical music is for everyone,” he says.

Although his current home—a one-bedroom co-op in Queens that he shares with his 12-year-old cat Sheba—is no mansion, the never-married Lythgoe insists he feels richer than ever. “Seeing the joy in people’s faces pays me back a hundredfold,” he says. “In a big concert hall you don’t see it. You don’t feel it.”

The appreciation is evident at Holland House, when Lythgoe and violinist Sergio Reyes, 26, finish their rendition of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” A jobless man named Willie offers his critique: “I can’t play a lick, but I know good music when I hear it.” So does Lythgoe, and he considers it more than a mere diversion, whether for the poor or the prosperous. “It’s a primeval need,” he says. “I believe it’s the last thing to die in us, if it dies at all. Perhaps when we cross over, we cross over singing. I’d like to think that.”

William Plummer

Bob Meadows in New York City

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