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Closer Than They Appear

     If the most recent World Piano Competition is any indication, there is nothing graceful about adjusting the height of a piano bench. Like the steering wheel of a Cadillac, the knob hardly moves the bench at all; the poor pianist might spend half a minute ratcheting, crouched in tux or evening dress, while the audience coughs and the judges fidget. Once he or she sits down, further adjustment will almost certainly be necessary; and this will mean squatting over the bench like over a scuzzy bar toilet, fiddling with the knob some more; and then sliding it forwards or backwards, bench and pianist tilting perilously as uncooperative legs catch on the stageboards. Tuning a piano may be an art, but this is more like changing a tire—an incongruity of the highest order, given the interpretative magic these pianists will be expected to perform just moments later. And yet, one has a tendency to forget that this magic is also, to a greater or lesser degree, mechanical. Anyway, watching all this squatting and fiddling, I started to wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to arrange pianists in order of height, or relative length of leg to torso, rather than alphabetically.

Consider the other impressions these young competitors (aged 18 to 34 years) make before they have even played a note. For instance: to look or not to look at the judges? A few glanced up at them before bowing, maybe inadvertently. One young man went so far as to bow to judges and audience separately.

And then the handkerchiefs. About half the pianists wiped down the keyboard before beginning, as though it were an exercise machine at the gym. One did so zealously enough to produce a short glissando.

When it was all done—the bowing, the glancing, the piano-bench adjusting, the wiping—there was a long moment of silence, of focus, sometimes with the hands already poised over the keyboard, sometimes with the hands in the lap, before beginning to play.

*

So began, in one way or another, the trial of each of the 11 pianists I had a chance to hear at this year’s Artist Division of the 56th World Piano Competition, held every summer in Cincinnati. Pianists aside, my first impression of the competition left something to be desired. My parents and I drove up from Louisville, about a hundred miles, for the Monday afternoon preliminaries, only to find that some of the judges had been stranded at airports, and the one-thirty start time pushed back to three. At two-thirty we were admitted with four or five others to the small Jarson-Kaplan Theater of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for the Arts. (Had we realized the size of the venue, we wouldn’t have bothered with binoculars. Trying to focus on the keyboard reminded me of that Gary Larson cartoon of a side view mirror with one enormous eyeball in it, the caption “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”)

At quarter to four there was still no word on the judges. The audience had not grown in size. Then a woman appeared on stage, unannounced, and played the funeral march from Chopin’s second sonata.

What next? I thought. Buzzards circling above the Aronoff Center?

When she had finished, an elderly woman, apparently a matriarch of the competition, announced what we had already learned from the staff, about stranded judges. The competition, she said, would begin at ten the next morning. The box office grudgingly refunded our tickets. We took a few pictures of the whimsical porcine effigies festooning downtown, and drove home.

Happily, if gruelingly, Tuesday more than made up for Monday’s fiasco, if not for its poor handling by the competition’s organizers. The morning block turned out to be two hours (10-12). Each pianist was still given about half an hour; to the six scheduled to play in the three-hour Tuesday afternoon block, a seventh was added. Thus, in a little over five hours, we got to hear just under half of the 24 competitors, playing music ranging from Bach to Ligeti.

One thing that struck me listening to Tuesday’s cross-section of pianists was that you could never tell which composer was going to expose a chink in the armor. There is a tendency to believe that, if one can play, say, the Mephisto Waltz, or a Rachmaninoff concerto, one can play pretty much anything. Hierarchies of difficulty notwithstanding, this is simply not true. One pianist’s flair for the Bartok sonata did not extend to the tricky trills-in-thirds that open the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 3. Another, who played Chopin’s study in octaves as thunderously as I’ve ever heard, and finished her premilinary recital by taking a sledgehammer to Liszt, made several obvious missteps in the first movement of the Beethoven Opus 2, No. 2. These early Beethoven sonatas are no walk in the park—they were written at a time when Beethoven would have been known as a keyboard virtuoso rather than as a composer—but they are hardly benchmarks of transcendental virtuosity. A third pianist, on the other hand, played a lovely Beethoven Opus 90, and brilliant renditions of Ligeti’s “Arc-en-ciel” and “Fanfares” studies … but played the last Chopin etude (the Opus 25 No. 12) by rote. This is the reason, of course, that competitors choose a range of pieces—sometimes, as with the Opus 2 Beethoven sonatas, a single movement from a longer piece: to demonstrate their proficiency at interpreting music of different periods. Chinese-born, Cincinnati College of Music-schooled Hai Jin’s  program was case in point: she played a Mozart sonata, a Chopin etude, a novelette by Schumann, and a prelude by Debussy. What was remarkable about her performance was her chameleonic ability to match her playing to each composer, be it the charm of Mozart or the stateliness of Schumann (something I noted, in an earlier post, about Anna Polonsky).

This brings me to a second point, something I realized listening to the Romanian (and Mannes graduate) Bogdan Dulu play a Bach prelude and fugue during the morning session. His touch and articulation were superb: an absence of legato that was in no way choppy, and an evenness of delivery which, somehow, sounded anything but mechanical. There was clearly a person playing this music, tall figure bent over the keyboard, pants not quite long enough to cover the top of the sock on his damper-pedal foot. And yet, what I felt I was witnessing was an emptying of the self, a making of oneself a conduit—as Emerson famously put it, “a transparent eyeball.” There was no sense of the player thrusting his personality into the music—and very little, by extension, of the sort of affected gesturing and emoting which some of the other pianists indulged in—no more than an occasional raised eyebrow, as though Dulu were surprised at some of the composer’s choices. Mind you, he did not play his second selection, Martinu’s preludes “in form of blues, fox-trot” etc. in this way.* The same almost mechanical precision and perfection of articulation, yes; but with an entirely changed demeanor, and one, once again, perfectly suited to the tenor of these pieces. He was not afraid to swing when swing was due, to let his right arm hang loose by his side while his left hand strode up the keyboard. In terms of the Bach, though, no one else played the composer quite like this the rest of the day. Lovely as the others’ Bachs were, they were not the sort that made me sit up and take notice—the sort that achieves that combination of poetry and geometrical purity one associates with the raptures of the Newtonian universe.

The other particularly memorable recital that Tuesday was by Korea’s Woori Kim. She played three preludes by Debussy, including the spectacular (!) “Fireworks,” and the fourth scherzo by Chopin. This performance was more contentious among the three-judge panel made up of my parents and I, my mother feeling that she Debussy-ized the Chopin, my father arguing that her “Fireworks” was not technically up to scratch. I wouldn’t dream of contesting the latter point, though it may mark a difference between the way listeners and players hear the same music. Then again, there may have been something partly visual about my enthusiasm. Some pianists more dance than play, the instrument becoming another extremity through which they communicate. Not that Kim needed to move much; it wasn’t how much she moved, but the grace with which she executed these movements. The “Fireworks” prelude, for example, demands so many different attitudes and positions from the pianist, that there is a sort of acrobatics in its execution. Under Kim’s touch, I couldn’t help but imagine the piano as a giant cat, its fur stroked first one way, then the other, now with the flat of the hand, now with the tips of the fingers.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the visual appeal of this recital at the expense of the sound, which was similarly remarkable, refreshing, personable. I was surprised—and then surprised to be pleasantly surprised—that she didn’t rely too much on the pedal in her Chopin. Surprised, because I am a listener who likes to be transported by romantic wash. Her Chopin had an uncommon clarity; she didn’t seem to mind allowing the seams and joints to show, so that we were invited to admire Chopin’s workmanship rather than be transported by the Gestalt. As with Dulu, there was a sort of admission here that the music was not a beauty of her own making, but one that she was scaffolding for us, to allow us to hear it more clearly. And yet, “for us” is a bit extravagant. Sometimes I got the feeling—and I think, in some of the best interpretations, the audience should—of being a third party, eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue she was having with the composer. More than note clarity, there was an emotional clarity, a sure-footedness about how she wanted to handle the Chopin. Suffice to say it was not the Chopin I am accustomed to hearing, but one that I feel richer for having heard.

And my bête noire, Liszt? To think one could escape Liszt at a piano competition would be ridiculous. But we were ridiculous; we believed that, by adequately studying the program, and scouring the week’s horoscopes, and making all the proper offerings, we could at least encounter as little Liszt as possible. You know what happened next: judges got stranded, Monday night’s pianists ended up playing on Tuesday morning. And then the pianists themselves, the ungrateful so-and-so’s, pulled pieces from their quarter- and semi-final programs to play in the prelims. And so we ended up hearing a good deal more Liszt than we had bargained for. (Not that my father minded; it was my mother and I who suffered, patiently.) I suppose this is a deserved comeuppance for my anti-Liszt equinox post. Anyway, listening to Liszt after writing my harangue proved instructive. I came to understand that a little Liszt is not a terrible thing; there are always a few passages so brilliant that they transcend their own gaudiness. If only the man had known when to stop. By the end of a piece, whatever good there was has been sluiced from memory, and whatever goodwill I might have felt toward the composer twenty measures in has turned to annoyance, or outright anger. I never thought I would say this about classical music, but … clearly what we need are pianists who will play highlights from Liszt. A medley, like geriatric rock bands do with their older material. And maybe an announcer, to help keep track of where we are.

I didn’t write that. I would never write such a thing. You didn’t read it here.

*

I hope both the pianists I highlighted moved forward, but unfortunately I have not been able to ascertain whether or not they did. The WPC website has not been updated since the competition. For some reason, the easiest-to-find results are from back in 2009. The crowd for the prelims never broke twenty, although, judging from the applause in the videos posted from 2011, the finals seem to be somewhat better attended. And to think that, according to the program, in 2003 they broadcasted the competition to tens of millions. I know the audience for classical music is supposed to be dying, but does it have to be euthanized? Given the crowds I have seen at the Van Cliburn competitions in Fort Worth—and given that the WPC bills itself as the country’s premiere competition, sports a star-studded advisory board, and has a list of sponsors and contributors that goes on for pages—I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t better known, better attended. Perhaps this is the reason: searching for the names of finalists, I found an undated job posting for Artistic Manager for the WPC. Maybe the position hasn’t been filled? If you’re reading this, happen to live in northern Kentucky or southern Indiana or Ohio, and you have any experience in nonprofit marketing (or website design?), you might try giving them a call. It’s too much good music and talent to be squandered on ten or fifteen gatos locos in the audience, and a half-dozen judges flown into Ohio from the ends of the earth.

 

* The Martinu was unknown to me, and I haven’t been this wowed by an unfamiliar piece since hearing Jeremy Denk play the Ligeti etudes a little more than a year ago. But then I’m a sucker for modern classical that twists folk and pop forms into bizarre and surprising new harmonic shapes—Bartok, Schulhoff, Barber, etc.

3 thoughts on “Closer Than They Appear

  1. Jorge E Bernardini

    I forgive you the criticism on Fliszt’s music(!?). The rest of the article is exactly to the point in every aspect, from organization to the playing by the pianists. Very witty, I enjoyed every bit of it, especially the “gatos locos”. Please keep writing.

  2. Bogdan Dulu

    By chance I stumbled upon your article and, almost a year after it’s been written, I had the chance to read your impressions. Thank you for your nice comments regarding my playing, it is refreshing and somewhat uplifting to realize, even a year later, that someone in that competition enjoyed my musical thoughts.

  3. Helldriver

    So pleased you found it, and hope you play a recital in the New York area in the near future (and that I haven’t missed one in the intervening year) so that I have the pleasure of hearing you again. Cheers!

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