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Waiting on the line to speak with concert pianist Earl Wild, a caller doesn't hear any "hold" music. Instead, in the background, she can hear showers of rapid, silvery notes.

Wild is practicing!

It's amazing to overhear Wild at home in Columbus, Ohio, running through this piece or that, like any other musician. Wild is almost 85. He belongs, with Van Cliburn, to the first generation of America's homegrown superstar concert pianists. He played for six American presidents, starting with Herbert Hoover. He knew people who had studied with Franz Liszt.

But don't mention how people have called him a link to an earlier era. That's what Wild says when he comes to the phone.

"I think the only link we should talk about is the missing link, and I don't know who that is," Wild wisecracks. "Journalists do that. Every time a pianist is my age, they always think that if he had any talent, he's a link."

It does seem too early to consign Wild to the history books. He is still going full blast. White-haired and ruggedly handsome, he looks quintessentially American, like Robert Frost.

When he comes to Buffalo on Tuesday to play a recital - his 85th Birthday Celebration - the program comprises mountainous pieces by Chopin, Liszt and Brahms. That's the way Wild likes it. He has always loved a challenge.

Take Chopin's G Minor Ballade: Isn't it difficult for Wild to put his own stamp on such a frequently performed piece?

"I don't look at it that way," Wild says. "Too many people think of themselves as they play. It's better if you think of the composer."

The Ballade, he confides, gives him a special thrill. "I like to play it every once in a while because it has always presented a problem to all pianists," he says. "Horowitz used to play it frequently, and I feel the same way about it that he did. You always feel that next time will be the real wonderful time."

Wild lives for suspense. He has taken magnificent chances, not always critically acclaimed, even before crowds at sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.

"He is a true stage personality, and he seldom plays the same way twice," wrote David Dubal of Wild in "The Art of the Piano." "He likes the danger and thrill of performance."

Wild has, he admits, nerves of steel.

One night, he was playing the Tchaikovsky concerto under the baton of Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops. Wild's mind went blank in the middle of the cadenza. Though he confesses to an instant of fright, he didn't panic. He began improvising.

"Fiedler looked down and said, "I hope you know how to find your way out of this, because we have to get on with things.' "

The conductor's warning didn't throw him off. "Arthur Fiedler talked to me a lot in those days," he says. And the music - well, to hear Wild talk, that was a cinch. "Tchaikovsky gives you so many good themes," he shrugs.

Even as a boy, Wild had no problem with stage fright.

"My nervous system was like an insect," he laughs. "It's a marvelous nervous system. It can withstand anything."

Alone with Jack and Jackie

Wild has always been focused.

He was 10 when he played for President Hoover at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "I don't remember much about it," he says. "You're hustled in, hustled out." He played "many times," he says, for Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He liked to sit by the piano and watch my fingers," Wild says. "And so I would always play fast pieces."

Wild was calm even when he played for John F. Kennedy's inauguration, in the worst circumstances a concert pianist can face.

"It was a terrible night and I had to get out of the automobile in the park by the zoo and walk up the hill and thumb a ride in my tails and traffic was stopped," he says, giggling a little. "Thank God I started early. I was soaking wet up to my waist."

Forced to walk the last blocks to Constitution Hall, Wild arrived to an empty backstage. Well, almost empty. "I was the only one backstage for about half an hour, along with the Kennedys. They arrived early." He laughs. "They were very pleasant people."

What did they discuss? "Things that weren't important. The weather, the music."

But music has always been the most important thing in the world to Wild.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, he never had to be forced to practice. "Oh, God, no," he shrugs. "I drove them all crazy."

His parents, brothers and sisters tuned out his playing. "My family didn't pay much attention to me, though they always thought it was nice," he says.

Wild is grateful to his older sister, who now lives in North Carolina. "She was 13," he says, "and she would take me when I was 9 or 10 to hear all the great pianists and orchestras."

The young Wild admired the restrained drama of such great pianists as Josef Hofmann and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. "They didn't show off very much," he says. "Josef Hofmann was very quiet when he played."

Rachmaninoff remains one of his biggest idols. "His records are not quite as wonderful as his public performances," Wild says. "In front of an audience, he was a different person. His performances always had such beautiful sounds, such wonderful rhythms and tempos.

"I thought it was the most wonderful playing I ever heard in public. I hate to say that, because there have been so many pianists I've admired. But it was something. He never moved an inch, never threw his arms up in the air or did any carrying on."

Wild retains a colorful contempt for pianists who behave like show-offs. "Any teacher who tells his pupil to make gestures should be removed from his position," he declares. "People that wave their arms in their air annoy me so much. Sometimes I have to laugh, because it's so funny. They only move around in the easy spots," he can't resist observing. "If you kept things difficult, they couldn't do that."

If Wild doesn't have to wave his arms to dazzle audiences, it's because he boasts one of the world's top piano techniques.

He built it up, he says, simply by playing. "I was a very good reader by the time I was 8. When people needed someone to read something, they'd call on me. That's how I helped my family make a living."

Scales and exercises were never Wild's bag. "Your technique is developed not through exercises but through playing pieces," he says. "There are a lot of exercises I don't like. Hanon I don't like. It's a mechanical thing. And there were these very ugly exercises that hurt my hands. . ." He fumbles for the name. "Pishna!" he spits out, vengefully. "Awful exercises. And they hurt! He should have been put in jail."

Now, Wild practices four hours a day. "I play pieces that I like to play, pieces that I'm going to play. I like to play new things. It keeps the old pieces from becoming threadbare."

He sees music-making as a changing, unfolding process. "You're not making an embroidery," he says. "I try to have an improvisatory quality in my playing. Then it sounds fresh."

Soft-spoken as he is, Wild isn't above dishing a little dirt.

Most of us know Johannes Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann only as the subjects of adoring tomes. But Wild knew people connected with them. He studied with Egon Petri, whose parents, years before, used to entertain such legends. "People like Tchaikovsky and Brahms would come to visit," Wild says.

With which, he passes on a few stories. He says, for instance: "Brahms was not a good pianist but he was a wonderful musician." And it seems Clara Schumann, idolized as a 19th century virtuoso, had her off days, too. "I don't know if she didn't practice, or what," Wild says.

He repeats a tremendous tale about how, after Robert Schumann died, Clara went to London and played a recital of his works. She played so atrociously, Wild conveys in a low voice, that she hurt her husband's reputation. "They didn't want to hear Schumann for a long time after that!" he confides. He adds: "She was not a nice person."

As much as he dislikes overt showmanship, Wild gives a free pass to his idol, the bombastic Franz Liszt. "Whatever he did that was show-offy was for pure business," he says. "Liszt knew his public, and he knew what he was up against. He can be forgiven, because underneath, he was a wonderful person. He gave money to pupils and did wonderful things. I knew a lot of Liszt pupils," he adds.

Liszt's music fueled Wild's interest in piano transcriptions (piano arrangements of other works). Liszt was known for his transcriptions, of everything from Chopin to Wagner. Wild became famous for playing these difficult, oversized pieces.

"People have denigrated transcriptions, but they're really quite wonderful," he insists. "It's a marvelous thing. . . . When I was 4, I loved the 'William Tell Overture.' I used to play it by ear."

Though his Gershwin transcriptions can hint at jazz, Wild's works are strictly classical. "I never change the rhythm of the melodies that composers have written," he says. "Otherwise it becomes distorted. It's like people who sing the national anthem and distort rhythms," he says, off on another funny, fretful tangent. "They sing the national anthem at ball games and are moaning and carrying on. It annoys me so much!"

Wild admits that everyone's tastes change, including his own. "You have to expect that," he says. "If it didn't change it wouldn't be alive." He laughs. "We always hope that it changes for the better."

Music, he muses, is an intensely personal matter.

"You find if a person has a warm personality, it comes out in the music," he reasons. "If a person has a cold personality, that comes out in the music too."

Wild knows, as few other people can, that it can take a pianist years to find his own personality. "I always hate to say who is going to be the great pianist of the next coming years. There are so many wonderful young ones," he says. "We have to wait until they're older. Sometimes, as people grow older, they warm up."

Earl Wild performs Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 1080 Main St. His is the first concert in the Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, five concerts taking place between now and April 2002. A subscription to all five concerts is $150; tickets are not sold for individual concerts. For information, call Gary Shipe, 833-5206.