In his velvet jacket, colorful scarf and longish, graying hair, David Dubal looks as if he might have emerged from a 19th-century daguerreotype album recalling the life and times of a lesser-known romantic poet, a Renaissance man from an era long gone.
Yet his many accomplishments are decidedly modern. A professor emeritus (Juilliard), Peabody award-winning radio broadcaster, TV producer, pianist, painter and, most centrally, authority on piano, Mr. Dubal is a mainstay of New York’s classical music scene. In addition to being the author of many published works (“The Art of the Piano,” “Evenings With Horowitz”) and the host of long-running radio shows (“The Piano Matters” on WWFM and “Reflections From the Keyboard” on WQXR), he won an Emmy for his 1993 documentary, “The Golden Age of the Piano.” But he is perhaps most in his element on Tuesday evenings at Grace & St. Paul’s Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It is there that he holds his weekly course, Piano Evenings With David Dubal, which is filled with a cross-section of piano enthusiasts and aficionados, many of whom have been studying with Mr. Dubal for decades. Top-notch pianists perform, and Mr. Dubal critiques the composer’s work. His encyclopedic knowledge is stunning.
But what has galvanized him lately is a new venture: an interactive video game called Piano Galore. It is meant to, in his humble estimation, address the “dearth of arts in America,” which he equates with psychic and social annihilation.
“No art? No life!” he proclaimed during a wide-ranging conversation in his spacious, lived-in Upper West Side apartment that is awash in his own nonfigurative paintings and his massive, eclectic book collection, which he estimates contains 5,000 volumes.
“You cannot be an educated humanist unless you read,” he asserted. “I read five or six books at a time. I underline passages I like. I make comments in the margins. I quote them on the radio show. I love the smell of the book page. I sniff at it as others sniff cocaine.”
The video game is an antidote to what Mr. Dubal views as a crisis embodied in the diminished audience for classical music and the vast cut back in concert venues. It is also a financial opportunity, given the limited opportunities for writers of books on serious music.
“My publisher for my latest piano book loves it but says it will not sell,” he said. “Nothing has value in this culture unless it’s monetized. I no longer have a publisher or agent but need one.”
Asked which of his many roles most defines him, Mr. Dubal responded with some drama: “I never want to define myself.” His eyes grew wide. “To define yourself is death. Nietzsche said that.” Like a judge pounding a gavel, he slapped his palm onto his coffee table. “I am constantly reinventing myself. Every day.”
Mr. Dubal was born around 1944 (he would prefer not to say exactly) and was raised in Cleveland. Like most boys of his generation, he grew up loving baseball. “Every child in that era wanted to be a baseball star,” he recalled. But when he was 9 years old, his parents quite casually bought a piano, and it didn’t take long for him to trade in his baseball cards for sheet music. He was one of the few who later made it to Juilliard.
He hoped to earn his living as a concert pianist but ultimately came to terms with the fact that it was not realistic. And so following graduation, he taught music in various institutions, including in what was formerly The New York Institute for the Education of the Blind. One day, while sitting in the dentist’s chair, he learned about an opening for the job of music director at WNCN, a classical music station.
His face still numb from Novocain, Mr. Dubal called the station and within short order was hired, serving for more than 20 years as its guiding force, reshaping its direction and programming every hour of every day. Today, he said, he is grateful not to be in charge of a station’s programming anymore, responsible only for his regular radio shows.
Despite his dire cultural predictions, Mr. Dubal expresses a quirky optimism and a healthy dose of irony. Piano Galore initially envisioned superheroes — Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Hornet — as piano teachers. When a student would make a mistake, for instance, Catwoman might swat the keyboard with her tail. He scrapped that idea because of copyright issues, though he especially regrets the loss of Catwoman.
He is now toying with the idea of creating his own cast of animated superheroes — pianists, conductors, composers — who will interact with one another and the players. The mandate is to teach piano and music appreciation.
Mr. Dubal has hired a web designer, Dante Montovano, to help him work out the details. Mr. Montovano’s company, Seven Circle Media, collaborated with Mr. Dubal on another project, “The Unconquerable Piano: A Literary Journal of Piano Culture,” an online quarterly to be launched in October.
He is determined to accommodate Mr. Dubal’s fanciful ambition and its comic improbability, whatever that involves, including the acquisition of a computer for Mr. Dubal, who does not own one. He does have an iPhone, though, and will occasionally text and email on it. Still, he favors pen, paper and cursive script.
Nothing takes greater precedence for him than his love of classical music. “Great classical music is the purest and the most ecstatic art form,” Mr. Dubal said. “It touches the Godhead. But nobody wants that. They want stadiums, noise, all the manifold properties of pop culture that have nothing to do with art.”
A natural improvisor, Mr. Dubal gained enthusiasm as he spoke. He was fierce, almost unnerving, yet he seemed to be rather enjoying the slightly demented impression he was making.
“We’ve been conditioned from birth,” he continued. “Capitalism and commercialism. Salesmanship. The lying publicity machine, the 21st-century Barnum. The first ugly American. Glory, glory, hallelujah, a monument to nothing. Social media. It’s antisocial.”
Still, he is aware that his interactive video game would certainly benefit from social media and the possibility of reaching audiences in the millions. In fact, in an effort to broaden his market, he said he has plans to master Instagram, TikTok and all the other “antisocial” media out there. He doesn’t exactly know what an influencer is or does, but he aspires to become one to help his brand and promote his game, his vision and himself.
On a cryptic note that both celebrates and slyly derides himself, he summed it up: “In a society in which incompetence rises to the top, mediocrity is an ideal that we may never achieve again,” said with a hint of mischief. “I’m a midlevel mediocrity, even as I’m circling around perfection.”