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The Last Waltzes

Three spring piano recitals and a note on the Cliburn.

What a treat to find Yevgeny Sudbin on the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts schedule for a late-March recital at Town Hall. I discovered him a few years ago via a disc of Scarlatti sonatas, his debut recording, and was doubly pleased that his program opened with a suite of four sonatas before moving on to the more traditional fare of Chopin, Debussy, Liszt and Scriabin.

While Sudbin’s Scarlatti takes full advantage of the piano’s dynamic capabilities, he keeps one foot firmly planted in the harpsichord tradition—that is, off-pedal. Like András Schiff, whose recording turned me on to Scarlatti more than two decades ago, Sudbin’s Scarlatti is lyrical without making of the composer an anachronistic Romantic—perhaps a greater danger with Sudbin, given the other composers in his repertoire. For me, it raised the question—again—of how the poetic side of Scarlatti could have been overlooked for so long. Of the four sonatas on the program, only the K. 455 featured the hustle, rhythmic bumpiness, and hair-raising tremolos of that better-known Scarlatti “ingenious[ly] jesting with art.” The K. 27 is rather a monument to gentle virtuosity—at a proper, cantering tempo, the hand-crossings are hardly ostentatious, and add great color to the sonata’s central, descending passage—while the K. 466, with which Sudbin started, and the opus-less G minor sonata display the composer at his most meditative.

If Sudbin emphasized the poetry in Scarlatti too often ignored, his Chopin felt a little dry. It’s as though he were seeking a meeting-place where Scarlatti and his great admirer, Chopin, might break bread. In the thoughtful liner notes to his recording of the Ballades et al., Sudbin writes about his quest for a “perfect Chopin interpretation,” one that balances naïve exuberance and mature reflection. To my ear, his Chopin was a bit too tempered … but then I’m a Judas Priest fan, and so probably not the best yardstick for appropriate levels of exuberance.

The second half featured two of Liszt’s more tolerable endeavors, the Funerailles and one of the Transcendental Etudes, played with the requisite mix of sentiment and pomp. But it was Sudbin’s approach to the two “colorists,” Debussy and Scriabin, that most drew my attention. Here, the Scarlatti was a portent: Sudbin clearly relishes those clanging, resolution-scuttling “unessential” notes that so troubled the sonatas’ early editors and appreciators. His L’Isle joyeuse verged on pure effect, as he compressed the already-attenuated melodic landscape yet further, until almost nothing remained but splashes of color and seething dynamics: those ever-shifting surfaces where the prancing, elvin little melody goes into solution. He worked similarly with the fifth Scriabin sonata, though this had an energy of a different sort, building to a full-tilt blitz that almost sent him hurtling off the piano bench at the end.

Reading Sudbin’s opinion about encores clarified much about how the concert ended. From an interview at pianistique.com: “Some people tell me I have to play more big encores … The audience usually likes it, but ideally, I wouldn’t play an encore. They often trivialize concerts as they are often flashy.” Perhaps. But Sudbin’s first choice of encores at Town Hall was inspired: he re-played the G minor Scarlatti sonata. It made the encore feel integral, and gave the program a cyclical quality, as if we had participated in a voyage to the further reaches of tonality and returned to the “safe” (if very quirky) harbor of Scarlatti, meditating at his keyboard in the gloomy vaults of El Escorial. As though Scriabin were the music Scarlatti heard in his dreams. It also told the audience a Scarlatti sonata is worth hearing more than once—that they are not jests, but solitaires whose workmanship bears loving scrutiny. (“One only needs to hear the same piece twice,” Sudbin has said, “and something might just happen.” Indeed.)

If only he had ended there. That damned sense of responsibility to his audience! He returned, and then again, thin frame dressed all in black, with a shock of black hair combed sideways, like the personification of a semiquaver. The third encore was a souped-up waltz. I thought I recognized it as Chopin. Or was it Johann Strauss? It hardly matters. In such an arrangement, one can’t tell the difference, and one is not supposed to. How daring those chromatic runs must have sounded in Chopin’s day; here, they were stereotypical embellishments to keep the fingers busy, the noise level up, and the audience’s attention fixed. Of course, waltzes are built for such liberties, and Sudbin is hardly the only pianist to add extra chrome, to make it flash and shine until the audience is hypnotized. I saw Marc-Andre Hamelin do a similar thing during an encore to a Chopin waltz just the month before; I think it was the minute, though it must have lasted five, and felt more like ten. How much I would have liked to leave hearing the Scarlatti in my head. For a moment, Sudbin found the perfect antidote to a trivializing encore. Then the demon of responsibility possessed him. Would it be too much to ask a bit more irresponsibility from such a young pianist?

*

On May 5th, Rafal Blechacz played the last PSC Town Hall concert and the only other piano recital there besides Sudbin’s. In 2005, when Sudbin was recording the Scarlatti disc, Blechacz became the first Pole to win the Warsaw Chopin International Piano Competition in 30 years, and was soon feted as a national hero. According to my program notes, his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Chopin’s preludes and piano concertos have both gone multiplatinum in Poland. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed such a phenomenon, even in my relatively short history of concertgoing. When Lang Lang became the sensation of the classical piano world some years ago, I remember remarking mentally on the number of young, hip-looking Asians at Carnegie Hall the evening of his recital. The same thing happened when “Nobu,” the blind co-gold medalist at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011. Was Town Hall filled with Poles this Sunday afternoon? I doubt it. The audiences for that series are almost all subscribers, and only the few returned tickets are auctioned off just prior to a concert.

Not a bad reminder, this, of the deeply national roots of classical music, of how shallow is the soil of invented traditions, and of the tenaciousness of the idea of nation in a globalizing world. For such audiences, the virtuoso pianist seems to be imagined as an athlete who “medals” for his or her country. With Lang and Nobu—two recent fish in a large pool of phenomenal young Asian pianists—a few possible readings suggest themselves: the Eastern champions of Western music “prove” classical music’s universal appeal; or, the Eastern champions of Western music signify Asia’s arrival as a full citizen of the European high-art tradition (whether or not the parents send their kids to Julliard); or, the Eastern performers who dominate the most technically-sophisticated music of the Western canon, and win prestigious competitions in the U.S. and Europe, signal a shift in the balance of world power, towing along all the Western anxieties about a rising China/Chinese middle class (and back through the Asian Tigers, all the way, perhaps, to the roaring Japanese economy of the ‘80s). Blechacz’s golds and platinums can be understood as returning the grail to its “rightful” heir: a Pole brings Chopin back to Poland, and, perhaps, Poland back to Chopin. Here, it is the greatness of the national composer celebrated through the national interpreter, and the trope is one of restoration.

I know these formulations reduce classical music to a big game of Risk. But I wonder if the speculated anxieties and episodes of (to my mind) bizarre musical patriotism are recording the seismic shifts as traditionally European music becomes the music of a global elite, riding on the coattails of liberalized capital flows.

All this does me lead me to question why Blechacz cut the Karol Szymanowksi sonata from the second half of his program. Perhaps it was a bone for the expat Poles he expected would show up to the Town Hall show, and, upon being informed that the audience was made up almost entirely of subscribers over the age of sixty, he decided a few Chopin mazurkas were a safer bet. Chopin notwithstanding, I’m going to be a rogue and speak instead about Blechacz’s Beethoven: his beautiful rendition of the Sonata Opus 10 No. 3. (Hilariously, of a disc with sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the program notes say only that it was a “huge success”—nothing about Polish platinums.) Clearly a technical wizard, there was no desire to race up-tempo passages in the outer movements or shirk rests in the second. This steadiness, almost implacability, served Blechacz well to make the Largo e mesto deeply expressive without being self-indulgent, and the closing Rondo delicately playful. (And he plays the Largo appassionato of the Sonata Opus 2 No. 2, featured on that “hugely successful” CD, equally patiently. As Blechacz writes there, he “feel[s] that the middle movement is often the ‘heart’ of a work … the place where the composer, as well as the performer, takes the opportunity to reveal in sound everything lurking in the deepest reaches of his soul.” It certainly comes through both in concert and on CD.)

After the thunderous ending of Chopin’s third scherzo, perhaps his choice of encore speaks more about how he approached the Beethoven than words can: Chopin’s waltz Opus 34 No. 2 in A minor. Like Sudbin’s repetition of the G minor sonata, this melancholy song for a lone dancer dignified the program rather than trivializing it. May Blechacz’s sense of irresponsibility never waver.

*

Pop!

May also presented me with my second opportunity to hear the brilliant Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall. It would be hard to think of a more vital young pianist. For Wang, simply playing the piano isn’t enough; she subdues it, with the roaring enthusiasm of a laughing cowboy breaking a colt. She crackles from the moment she strides into the stadium: her enormous, unselfconscious bow; the way she flops down at the keyboard and just starts in—no hesitation, no dithering, and nothing dainty about any of it, thank God. All the energy of the walk and the bow and the sit is suddenly channeled into the hands, which start going like sewing-machine needles—one can see the energy in her fingers, which curl as if she were scaling the keyboard—and when they are finished she has to stand up and bow again—has to keep moving—march out on those sharp heels—she is nowhere near exhausted, she has places to go, things to see, other concerts to play! It was a well-chosen program to showcase that energy, from the second Rachmaninoff sonata to the dark, noodling vibrancy of the contemporary “Gargoyles,” and two sonatas by Scriabin.

In performance, Wang makes of herself a work to be consumed alongside the music. Her whole exuberant persona is on display, and expressed, too, in her penchant for dressing out of code. (For this recital, she even changed outfits during the intermission, from red to black, just in case we weren’t paying attention. I confess that, in the first half, as she played Scriabin in that red dress with one shoulder bare, it was difficult not to imagine her as an Amazon warrior, one breast sacrificed to better wield the bow.) True, celebrity culture is nothing new to classical music. But it does seem to have changed in character and emphasis with the music’s desperation to revitalize itself by capturing a younger audience. How can classical grasp its own moribundity, when its very self-conception, the only thing that really unites it as tradition, is the idea of permanence? And how to sell classical to an age group for whom it is already moribund, and for whom mortality is just a bad dream?

Well, do what all the corporations and foundations that underwrite the music do: re-brand. Classical music has long been part of a cluster of signifiers of taste and luxury to which consumers aspire, and concert programs have long been larded with ads for Gucci, Chanel and Lexus. But something has changed here, too. The ads used to be there to sell products to people who had the money to consume highbrow music, or who wanted to spend an evening imagining they did. Now, classical music is itself sold as one more product advertised in the program: the perfumes and wrist watches become suffused with its aura of high culture, just as these products suffuse the music with their auras of decadent luxury. Now, if hip hop can sell decadent luxury to youth of all races, creeds, and income levels, why not classical?

In those rotating risque dresses and ten-penny heels, Wang seems to understand the mechanics of celebrity culture as well as Warhol ever did, and she gets the whole branding thing on the level of the body. She makes of herself a sumptuous feast; hers is a consumable prestige. Not just luxury, but youth, beauty, energy—the only really desirable immortality—for the aged members of the audience to feast vampirically upon, and for the young to be able to see themselves in the (hip, daring, mystical, erotic, timeless) mirror of classical music.

The evening’s program was a long sprint, and she was back in the locker room by nine-thirty while we whooped and hollered for her to come out again. How could she not? Five encores—count ‘em—like the specials at one of those restaurants where the menu represents only a fraction of the available dishes. The first four didn’t differ much from the regular entrees. But the fifth: Chopin, and another waltz, like Blechacz’s, in a minor key: the Opus 64 No. 2. It’s the one where each chorus begins slowly, accelerates to whirling speed, and then repeats more quietly, easing to a halt on a hushed high note. In Wang’s hands, the choruses started tentatively, the music coming to an inaudible stop, like a ball thrown into the air, and then built into whispering runs before petering out in reverie. The dancer gains secret confidence, momentarily forgetting herself in the joy of movement, in the freedom of what she wishes to do rather than what she was always told she must; easing, the memories come back, childhood; the body whirls to a halt, stiffens, the smile fades … I had never heard the story of this waltz before hearing Wang play it—or rather, I had never heard this story of the waltz before hearing Wang play it. It was enough to make me wonder what sort of a pianist she would be if she couldn’t do absolutely anything she wanted.

*

I shouldn’t single out Yuja Wang to bewail larger trends in the global entertainment marketplace. Classical seems to be between a rock (ha ha) and a hard place: embrace trends and try to grow a new audience, or perish in the history it pretends to bestride. Luckily or unluckily, classical, that numinous qualifier, may be yet more receptive to synergistic barnacling than other, more formally coherent musics.

Attending the Fourteenth Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth this June created a whole new opportunity to pursue these reflections. “The Cliburn” must be the world’s most fully-branded and fully-mediated piano competition. At the Cliburn shop, which spanned the width of the auditorium on the first floor of Bass Performance Hall, you can buy pretty much anything you can stamp the image of a piano onto—dog collars, shot glasses, coffee mugs, etc. And not just any piano: this is the elegant, austere logo of the Cliburn competition, cipher for the elegance and austerity of the event. (Yes, on a shot glass.) Upon entering the auditorium, if you happen to be sitting in the upper tiers, you will notice a large screen hanging above the stage, in which you can observe the projected movements of the performer appearing directly below. And not only up close, as through those binoculars you might have forgotten, but (much more important) from a variety of angles and distances, with a little bit of slow panning, a la Ken Burns or your PowerPoint slideshow. Much better to inhabit a series of fantastic, constructed perspectives than remain trapped in your own, subjectivity being the first, most exhausting, and most depressing fact of existence. And never mind the distraction caused by the lag between the sound and the image, or between the movements of the two pianists, the pocket one on stage and the behemoth on the screen. Perhaps the screen could be extended to cover the stage? Just a thought.

Sitting through an intermission rather than going out to the lobby, you will come to understand the true purpose of the screen: to flash the names of the foundations and corporations that sponsor the competition. The Cliburn has an official airline, an exclusive soft drink, an official this, an exclusive that.

Of course, the screen has long been the norm of arena rock/sports culture, and it’s about time classical music adopted it. One can’t get around the screen, not anymore; the very idea is preposterous. (First: There is an “around” the screen? Then: What screen?) The screen also helps ensure that stimulus is constant, for just as there is nothing more depressing than subjectivity, so there is nothing more terrifying than an informationless void. Across the street from Bass Performance Hall, you can watch the concerts livestreamed on a(nother) large screen—the same thing the upper-tier patrons in Bass Hall are seeing, though without the synching issues—for free. A wonderful addition to the competition, truly. The problem is that, during the intermissions, should you once again be unfortunate enough to stay in your chair, while those inside Bass are watching the names of sponsors discreetly flash by, you, freeloader, like the rest of your freeloading buddies watching the competition on line, will be strafed with human interest stories and (exclusive, official) interviews with anyone and everyone associated with the competition, including, now and then, the competitors themselves. These are the generic equivalents of the sort of thing you see during the Olympics—you know, behind-the-scenes with these young competitors, so you can find someone to “root for,” because it’s not enough just to listen to the music, that’s for the judges, you want to know whose father left them, and what they like to cook, and when was the first time they touched a piano, and blah blah blah. The format for commentary and interviews, too, seems pulled right off Sportscenter; I found myself waiting for the question, “How did you feel in that last movement, realizing the chips were down, that missed note in measure 34 still haunting you, and with those broken octaves at quarter-note-equals-two hundred coming at you?” (“Well, I just try to do my best, you know, give it a hundred percent, a hundred and ten percent, you know, we’ve trained really hard for this day,” etc.)

C’mon. Young pianists want to be on American Idol, too, follow the Cliburn on Twitter and friend the performers on Facebook. Everybody loves a good horse race, and everybody wants to be entertained 24-7. Most important: fill time, fill time, time must be filled. Time is money, and life is only so long, so do the math.

God, one begins pining for rests, toad-fat whole-note rests with big, angry fermatas hovering over them like bloated UFOs; for just a moment to clean the aural palette, to create that cushion of silence we can drop the music into, where it can fall without shattering, and without making a sound.

Last summer I lamented that the Cincinnati World Piano competition fails to attract a sustaining audience the way the Cliburn does, and recommended they get someone who can market. Now, I bitch about the Cliburn for its hyper-branding. Hypocrite me, as well as curmudgeon. And yet, this is my third time attending the Cliburn—it only happens once every four years—and I could swear the auditorium was fuller eight years ago, and the livestream room in 2009. I guess more people are choosing to stay home and watch the thing on line, and the money is coming from advertisers rather than ticket sales? The Huff Post reports twice as many Cliburn page hits as in 2009, and what with social media sites all abuzz and asqueal about the competition, there is much talk about the resurrection, at last, of classical music for Generation Z via the magic of the web. And so here we wait outside Lazarus’s tomb, cell phones poised.

Together with the Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Soler, Liszt, Debussy, and Scriabin, there was one piece that had been commissioned by the Cliburn foundation: “Birichino,” by the American composer (and Dallas native) Christopher Theofanidis. Every semifinalist had to play it, so I heard it nine times in three days. By turns foreboding and funny, dissonant, exotically modal and naïvely melodic, childish runs giving way to whacked note clusters, barrages of noise plunging into craters of silence, it was a perfect piece for each pianist to test him or herself against, a piece without a history of expectations, and with a wide canvas on which to dabble. “One only needs to hear the same piece twice, and something just might happen.” Yes, Yevgeny, and something did. Those silences! Some pianists took them more seriously than others. Some seemed a little put off by them. Some invited them to dinner. But the important thing is that you couldn’t get the cameras around them. You couldn’t edit them. You sure as hell couldn’t yabber through them. You had to wait for them to end, and see what came next: a lightly pecked note, perhaps, and then more waiting.

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