Tag Archives: classical

Attacking the Big Screens

At the Tokyo String Quartet’s farewell performance last May, I picked up the Winter 2012 issue of the classical music magazine Listen, which I had just begun to receive gratis for my occasional concert attendance at the 92nd Street Y. It would be mid-summer before I cracked it, and found a short article about the rise of multimedia presentations in classical music venues. Reading it convinced me that I should clarify my own position on the matter by posting an addendum to “The Last Waltzes” (07.01.13), which ended with a kvetch about screens at the Van Cliburn competition. Then, after seeing Lamb of God the other night at the soon-to-be-defunct Roseland Ballroom, it occurred to me that these thoughts might warrant a separate post.

Called “Attack of the Big Screens,” the article (by Colin Eatock) describes the different ways video has been employed in symphony halls around the country—from the naturally spectacular (e.g., NASA images of the solar system to accompany Holst’s The Planets) to more interactive and involved productions, such as those by the CSO’s Gerard McBurney. Reception has been largely positive, at least according to the promoters quoted, while producers and critics alike herald a bright new age. McBurney, for example, sees the screen as a way to help free the symphony hall from the shackles of convention, and audiences of their ossified expectations, “wean[ing them] off one of the great destructive influences of our culture—which is to treat art like something you consume, like a burger and a plate of fries”; and Alex Ross’s claim that the New World Symphony’s production of Thomas Ades’ Polaris convinced him that he was “witnessing the birth of a new artistic genre” suggests the potential of multimedia to transform the contemporary concert experience.

Let me begin by saying that I do privilege “abstract” music, music that is “only about itself” (!?), that eschews visual and narrative programs, and the concert hall as a space to experience music qua music. We don’t need the image of Napoleon on his horse or Obama at his podium to feel our hearts swell, particularly after Waterloo or the ACA. We don’t need NASA images of Jupiter, either, though I’m sure they’re lovely. (No, I’m not going to rehearse the arguments or rebuttals about music deriving its greater power from the absence of such programmatic fixity.)

That said, I have no intention of presenting myself here as another version of the “angry man screaming from the balcony” cited in Eaton’s article—although, it must be said, balconies are fine places to scream from. Marx’s aside, I’ve never been one for manifestos. I can think of nothing more pernicious than an artistic manifesto. Visual media present wonderful possibilities for creating other dimensions in our appreciation of music, and vice-versa, and new aesthetic experiences when combined; the concert hall is a perfect venue for exploring these possibilities; and the music-going public should welcome such productions as they would the opportunity to hear any new work, or new take on a classic work. I would argue that the visual should strive to be an equal partner with the music, as in Ross’s “new genre”: to be more than an embellishment, or a literalizing of the program, if one exists.

Now, the Holst-NASA production may simply make obvious the thinness of the score, and there are certainly pieces like it that beg to be aided by some sort of visual prosthetic.* But the Holst example, unthreatening and dollars-and-cents savvy as it may be, is troubling when considered in the context of a broader, creeping visual parasitism—is troubling precisely because it is unthreatening and easily rationalizable. For such “enhancements” suggest that the musical concert experience is no longer adequate for an audience raised on and mired in visual media; and that this is particularly the case when the music is from another time.

What I object to (as I did at the Cliburn, and might, apparently, in places elsewhere, as smaller, nimbler cities race ahead of my own beloved grey dinosaur) is the injection of the TV aesthetic, its flattening/narrowing of the world, of perception and understanding, into every possible place of assembly. In the ostensibly public spaces of the city, it is obnoxious enough; in concert halls, where people go to physically interact with art and with each other, it is even more disheartening. Lap-space, phone space, iSpace, your space, my space: all are one and equal. Or perhaps not: as every place is re-imagined to accommodate the latest iShit, physical space seems increasingly an adjunct of virtual-cellular space. At a time when I can barely get my students to go hear live music—and who are by and large thankful for the experience when they finally do—articulating the concert hall as another version of the phone/home theater seems like an enormous loss.

I understand that the concert hall is not eternal and immutable, that it is a product of historical forces, that it may soon be another quaint object of nostalgia, like the classroom with the chalkboard and my vaunted public square. And I understand, and don’t regret, that the art-entertainment binary has been paradox’d out of existence over the last half-century. But none of this is an excuse to suspend reflection or judgment. Poetry is still different from advertising; corporations still aren’t people. The composer or visual artist who is inspired to think about how nineteeth- and twentieth-century music or painting responds to and intersects with contemporary culture, and to produce work that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, troubles an audience’s relationship to its culture and its canons, whether by transforming the space of the concert hall or by seeking out some alternative, genre-blending arrangement, is not the same as the bean-counter trying to get more twentysomethings’ butts into seats at Carnegie Hall. Go ahead, tell me about how it was always a business, how Beethoven was a “scheming careerist,” as Virgil Thomson wrote, or how the beboppers wanted not to create a new art form, but get their due as professional musicians, as Scott DeVeaux argued. It’s not purity I want, or its loss I mourn. I’d welcome a bit of dirt in a world where everything is distilled to profit.

Music is one way, maybe the best way, to get outside that. Not to escape it necessarily, but to have a space to reflect, to stand back for a long moment from the hive and the chattering tide, to meet the stranger on the other side of you. And so either there is a sad irony in McBurney’s comment about the screen being a way to wean the public off the idea of art as something to be consumed, or that comment was made in bad faith. Rather than defying expectations, the screen, at least from what I’ve seen, seems like the latest way of giving the people what they want—it’s just different people, with different expectations … the ones who have grown up in the culture of art-as-consumption, and consumption-as-art, and who could most use to have their burgers and fries spilled on them.


I don’t have a huge soft spot for the Roseland; it’s always felt more like a wannabe stadium than a big club. That stadium-ness was never more apparent than during the recent Lamb of God show, and it was the screens, the screens, that made it so.

One on either side of the stage, they served two purposes. The first was to give those in the back close-ups of the musicians—just the band’s highly-regarded drummer, Chris Adler, and the occasional shot of guitarist Mark Morton shredding. They were stationary cams with a bit of fisheye distortion, and were not, as a whole, all that intrusive. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something even more dispiriting about this kind of video at a “club” show, Roseland-size or no. Metal shows are—should be?—about an ethic of participation and a total absence of personal space. The sort of contact you loathe on the subway is the reason you go to a metal show. Unless the sweaty, shirtless guy pushes past you and leaves a slug-trail across your arm-hairs; unless someone comes flying out of the pit and topples the people around them, so that you at least feel the ripple; unless somebody trying to get closer to the stage shoulders you out of the way, dragging his girlfriend behind him like a harrow; unless you push back; unless you yourself are touching the people around you and constantly being touched, can you really claim to have attended a metal show? And unless you enter the circle, or push past its madly spiraling currents to that dangerous reef between circle and stage, where the surfers roll over you in the waves of noise, and you feel the soles of their boots or sneakers against your scalp; unless you dare such a Hellespont, can you claim to have gained contact with the music?

It’s difficult to express the difference in power between the back and the front of a club like the Roseland. Each step toward the stage is like a step up the trail toward an erupting volcano. The sound rattles your ribs and pummels your heart; the angle of vision tilts up, so that the band crests over you like a wave. But then this was the precise angle of vision granted of Morton, the cameras hidden somewhere in the monitors. And so the video lulls, says, Don’t bother coming any closer. Don’t move. I am your limbs as well as your senses. Don’t desire; I have prepared a far more interesting spectacle for you that you can achieve for yourself. Why touch, or feel, when you can SEE so well? When I looked out on this sea of Lamb of Godders, they didn’t need the screens; there must have been forty or fifty watching the concert through their phones, martyring themselves, I suppose, so that everyone else in the world could bear witness on YouTube.

So many fans in the cave, taking the shadows for reality, and every wild-eyed, sweaty, bleeding S.O.B. who stumbles past him, a philosopher. But fuck Socrates, I’m talking about the orgies of Dionysus here. Hell, I’ve gone full-frontal Nietzsche …

I did say that LOG used the screens for two purposes, and before closing I should say something about the second. In fact, the first might have been more palatable if the second—which occupied the majority of the video-time—hadn’t been a textbook case in how NOT to use vids. Trite, context-less images of world chaos—you know, Vietnam carpetbombings, Saddam Hussein being arrested, darkskinned people weeping, etc. For other songs, creepy-looking Catholic icons, carpetbombings. For the chest-thumping patriotic song, U.S. soldiers giving the peace sign, carpetbombings. Every cliché of “political” turmoil, every cheapjack religious symbol, every fig of sentimental patriotism, all thrown together into the hopper. It was the sort of bad that revealed the danger of vids per se: that flattening and homogenizing of history until it becomes a reflection of the present, yours. Seriously, if I’d wanted to channel surf between cable news stations, I could have stayed home.

I’m not a devotee of Lamb of God, but I do like the couple of albums I have, and it was sad to see good music spoiled by bad media. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the last time I saw videos used for the duration of a metal performance. For Mastodon’s Crack the Skye tour back in 2009 or ‘10, the band used stills and repeating clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, together with other images and color collages. The film was thus treated as a visual found-object poem; on a deep, intuitive level, a bridge was created between music and image, between the album and that most musical of directors’ film. The show was a model of multimedia being used to create a new aesthetic dimension for the concertgoer, and it has left a sort of trace beauty on the album. Not that we need his imprimatur, but it’s hard not to think that Eisenstein, that most open and curious and maverick and imaginative and all-embracing of directors, wouldn’t have been pleased … and Prokofiev, too, whose gift for melody so perfectly lent itself to telling images, and who is the only composer I can think of who raised narrative to the level of music, rather than forcing the latter to kneel before the former.


On the train on the way to Lamb of God I read Edith Wharton’s little essay about ghost stories, where she complains that “the cinema and the wireless” are ruining people’s imaginations. The wireless! How the terror of modernity haunts Wharton’s later stories. In “All Souls,” for example, the protagonist’s broken-footed hobble through her empty mansion leads her to … a radio. The disembodied voices invade the vault-like space; the servants have all disappeared. Who is the real ghost here? That was 1937, but ghostly Edith’s kvetches are hauntingly similar to mine. It’s funny to think of myself as a ghost, a curmudgeonly Edith hobbling behind the caboose of the times, waving my cane and shouting for the train to slow down, complaining about the kids today, their phones and other iThings, their short attention spans and abysmal reading skills. Maybe I have nothing to worry about. Maybe people just gather differently. But worry I do—about the degree and kind of mediation, and what that means for our selves, our egos, our bodies. Music will of course change as our conception of self and society do, as our technologies and modes of delivery do. But if the screen in the concert hall is another bow-shot from the future, I fear what it means for the ways we gather and interact on the one hand, and on the other, where, how, and whether we find space to reflect and meditate.

With apologies for these undertheorized thoughts, for their possibly shrill tone, and for using this blog as a balcony to shout from, the very fact of which undermines everything I have written. A good academic would be reading Habermas on this rather than blogging. My problem with theory is that you can sometimes theorize yourself out of a righteous passion, and what’s the fun of that?


* There are examples of visual art that helps us to understand or appreciate something about a piece of music, and which, although the purpose is perhaps partly didactic, has a beauty in its own right. A colleague recently shared with me the work of Stephen Malinowski, in which pattern and color is used to create real-time visual scores. Apparently, it was originally conceived of as a way to make complex scores more intelligible. Great stuff. Hope it’s projected soon at a concert hall near me …

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.



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.

Four Quartets

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

The Takacs Quartet in 2012, photographed by Peter Smith

Quartets seem to be in the cultural crosshairs of late, at least judging from two recent middlebrow movie releases, The Last Quartet and Quartet (both 2012). If the latter, a geriatric Brit comedy set in a home for retired musicians, isn’t about a string quartet per se, it’s perhaps that much more an indication that quartet-ness has come to be regarded as a figure for community, a ready-made dramatic framework for exploring the dialectic between individual and group, the converse perils and joys of intimacy and isolation, and the struggles and strains behind finding a coherent, collective voice.

Watching the Takács Quartet in action during their master class at Weill Recital Hall last week was an engrossing reminder of these dramas of collaboration. The subjects were two of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 and 132; the participants, three young quartets, the Spruce, Linden, and Attacca. It also made for an interesting contrast with my own previous experiences of master classes, all of which had been piano. When the pianist’s clear, single voice of authority is split in four, the dynamic changes, revealing to what extent a quartet’s unified voice is the product of consent, compromise, negotiation, and argument. The tightly-braided rope that is the quartet in its final, public form unravels into its individual strands, exposing an amiable babel of semi-private voices.

It was in this spirit that Takács violist Geraldine Walther called out, “Don’t worry, Ji Hee, he’s been telling me that for years!” just as the younger violist (of the Spruce Quartet) was about to make a third attempt to appease Takács violinist Edward Dusinberre. Dusinberre was on stage, circling the Spruce, score open in one hand, asking them to pick up the Allegro at different measures, stopping them to comment, ordering them to repeat. Walther sat in the audience; her voice could have been any of ours. Her comment actually provoked a good deal of laughter, as she would several times over the course of the evening, a testimony to the easy atmosphere the class maintained despite the intensity of the undertaking and the grave beauty of the music, as the veterans prodded their younger counterparts to approach certain passages differently and experiment with new sound combinations.

As the exchange between Dusinberre and Walther suggests, the personalities of the Takács players fit neatly into their roles in the quartet, at least as they appear in performance. Dusinberre played first fiddle for much of the evening. The most outspoken and demanding, he also seemed to have the clearest sense of what he wanted, of the dramatic trajectory of the piece as a whole, and the language with which to express it. Cellist András Fejér was the second on stage, though he spent most of his time leaning against its left or right flanks, like Dusinberre’s goon. When he had something to say, he would approach all full of righteous fire, make his point, and then slink away, setting the tempo by snapping his fingers. Violinist Károly Schranz was less present, though he did lead part of the discussion of the first movement of the Opus 132, while Walther sat either in the audience or at the base of one of the columns along the rear of the stage, interjecting something to lighten the mood if the musicians seemed flustered, or taking their side if Dusinberre pushed a little too hard. (As Dusinberre was trying to get more lilt out of a phrase made up of rapid tradeoffs between cello and viola, she said, brightly, “It’s my fault, I told him [Linden violist Eric Wong] to play it that way.”) The prowling dominance of the first violin; the thoughtful if less prominent contributions of the second; the stabilizing role played by the viola; and the pantoum of the cello, who spent much of his time on the margins, but who would thrust himself into the foreground when he had something to say, and then retreat, holding down the tempo. Dialogues have just such a rhythm: characters who speak more, characters who speak less, and characters who hardly speak at all, but whose presence and occasional contributions are all the more necessary for pacing and rhythm, and without whom the drama, which only the others seem to be moving forward, would collapse of its own weight.

From the standpoint of music writing, the most fascinating thing about a master class is the opportunity to watch and listen as music is transformed into something else. It’s a setting where all the nuances of oral and gestural communication are called into play. The swinging conductor’s arm, demonstrating not just tempo, but rhythm, mood and line, often accompanying the singing of melodies. The proximity or distance of the teacher’s body, sometimes leaning in over the players, sometimes touching them—and sometimes far away, the disembodied voice in the room that eventually worms its way into the musicians’ heads, and then into their muscles and sinew. As for the words themselves, they can be brilliantly concrete (as when Fejér asked for a particular passage to display greater yearning, and then affectionate yearning, when he realized that an aspect of the personal was missing), or tumble and bleed into gesture and song; they are tugged this way and that, collected like pebbles to create greater emotional nuance, marshalled together into narrative arcs (sickness and convalescence, despair and hope), or appear as murky tickers along the measures in the score.

At one point, Dusinberre asked violinist Sarah McElravy of the Linden Quartet how she interpreted a particular phrase. When she replied, he answered, “I agree with you; but that’s not what I’m hearing.” He asked her to match her playing to the concept he had just pushed her to wrestle into language. And she did. Even Dusinberre commented on this: the incredible facility these players had for transforming opaque, knotty instructions cobbled together from a clumsy mass of words, gestures, half-sung melodies and snapped fingers into concrete musical expression. It may have been partly the effect of hearing the phrases again, set off from the rest of the movement, and thus framed anew, or even just hearing them more than once; but there was no question about the differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, these changes created for the listener. It is something magical for the non-musician; one comes to appreciate the remarkable plasticity of the musical text that much more.

Another example was the debate about how to approach the different parts of the theme (the droning introduction and the chorale) of the Opus 132 Molto adagio: with or without vibrato? The Attacca Quartet was asked to try both, if only to hear the difference. The first thing one notices is that the lack of vibrato is part of what gives those big, perfect intervals and slowly-accreting harmonies of the introduction their sacred quality; too much voice, too much of the human, ruins the effect—the equivalent of inserting a figure into a Rothko painting. With the parallel introduction of the Opus 132, the Assai sostenuto, the Linden was asked to resist the temptation to play it crescendo. The addition of each instrument successively in the opening phrase did not necessarily mean the volume should increase. And then, for the third essay, another correction: that the sound was not growing did not mean the music should be played tentatively. So we listened to that introduction transform over three or four readings, into something yet more beautiful and more moving; the absence of crescendo had, somehow, an emotional payoff. The same thing happened with the droning of the Adagio: a side of the spirit of the piece hitherto hidden suddenly manifested itself, perhaps not only because we heard a difference, but because we were being taught how to listen.

I’ve noted elsewhere that younger quartets can play the romantic repertoire with an almost histrionic intensity, which can be sometimes exciting, sometimes alienating. The Linden Quartet brought just such an intensity to the Allegro of the Opus 132, stretching it almost to the point of snapping. Here Dusinberre provided a welcome counterweight, reminding the players that there is a limit to dynamic range: if you play all your fortes as fortissimos, there will simply be noplace else to go. (As a writer friend of mine likes to say, “The lights can’t always be on.”)

But Dusinberre and the Takács as a whole played an even more important role in this regard. “You need to lean into each other more,” he said at one point to the violin and cello; and they did, actually physically leaned into each other—producing, once again, audible results. It was a reminder that music making is deeply and essentially bodily, that there is no music without movement. This was clear enough from the nearness of the music-making bodies in the room—sweating, stamping, swaying bodies whose movement, sometimes slow, sometimes vigorous, was responsible for everything we heard. It’s the intimacy of the chamber in chamber music that Weill comes closest to reproducing: the chamber that is the body, its walls erected around that pious organ, itself a mass of chambers, a throne of meat busy flushing blood around the body’s plumbing; and the chamber-pot, the chamber as the place of voiding and excreting. Music has its share of this, is about this, much as we try to spiritualize it, sequester it in big, impersonal cultural temples with ceilings that mimic the heavens.

Of course, nobody knew this better than Beethoven, and nowhere is that struggle with physicality more fully expressed than in the Opus 132. It was, after all, his digestion that struck him down, as it had plagued him his whole life. He wrote the quartet as he recovered from a long illness he had presumed to be mortal, as a “sacred song of thanksgiving from the convalescent to the divinity”—a letter, so to speak, from the body to the spirit. But what does the young musician, the young man or woman, know about these things? This wasn’t just about playing or not playing your fortes as fortissimos. During the jauntier Andante interludes of that haunting slow movement, Dusinberre noted that the musicians were responding too forcefully to the “Neue kraft” instruction in the score. This was hardly the energy of an old man just recovering from a long illness; one could not play these passages with the almost harsh physicality due, say, a symphony or sonata of the composer’s heroic period. This was a late quartet, in the fullest sense of that word. Not to say that a younger artist can’t empathize with and imaginatively understand the aged, ill Beethoven, but rather that a younger artist would be unlikely to come to the piece with this knowledge, and even less with the emotional maturity necessary to embody it.

The last time I heard the Opus 132 played live was last fall at Fashion High School by the Pacifica Quartet. The whole concert was one of the finest quartet performances in recent memory, even, or perhaps especially, in its incompleteness. In the middle of the Molto adagio, the stage lights—true story—went off; a few minutes later the musicians, unable to see their scores, were forced to abandon the performance. (So much for Neue kraft.) Now, it’s hard to think of a piece of music where a sudden plunge into darkness is more appropriate … though a slow fade might have been preferable. I remember thinking, If only we could find a way for them to finish. I’m sure everybody else had the same wish, and the Pacifica, too. And Beethoven? He had such plans: a tenth symphony, another great choral work. That great mournful darkness of the spirit, the animating force of the music: maybe this, above all, was what the Takács Quartet was there to teach.

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.

Of Liszt & Other Ghosts

In which the writer spends half the post damning Liszt, and the other half praising Beethoven; among other things.

     I spent a fair amount of energy over the last two concert seasons avoiding Liszt. 2011 was the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, so a lot of pianists took it upon themselves to load up their programs with Liszt. I wasn’t aware of the bicentennial until, walking by the Provincetown Playhouse one day last fall, my eye happened to catch on the all-Liszt program posted by the door. I remembered the Chopin and Schumann bicentennials of the year before, and a light bulb turned on over my head. Franz Liszt. Born 1811.

I was doomed.

Well, not really. Of the dozen or so piano recitals I caught over the last concert season, only a quarter featured Liszt … although this does not include concerts I avoided because they were predominantly or exclusively Liszt.

While it’s true that I’ve never cared for Liszt’s music, the bicentennial seems to have sedimented my feelings, making of Liszt an acquired distaste, and of me an inverted Lisztomaniac. Insipid melodies embellished to the hilt, as though through embellishment they would eventually come to say something. That old saw about Henry James—“he chews more than he can bite off”—actually applies better to Liszt. Hell, I can listen to James chew for hours. Nobody chews better than James. But there has to be something to chew—some inch, as James put it, from which to take that ell. And then the ell itself has to get us somewhere. In Liszt, the embellishment never seems to move the music in interesting directions. It is so much ornament around an empty center: a queen’s ruff on a playing card, a coiffed retinue genuflecting before an idiot king. A shimmering waste; music for magpies’ nests. The pianist Marguerite Long once compared the “fire of [Liszt’s] heart and genius illuminat[ing] the foam of his cascades” in Les Jeaux d’eau de la Villa d’Este to Debussy’s “prodigious love of nature” that “plunged him into that life-giving element, water,” in Reflets dans l’eau. Put differently, Liszt’s water is that of a decorative fountain: pretty, occasionally mesmerizing, but ultimately stagnant. Debussy’s are natural springs. I’d rather swim than watch.

I know it’s sort of un-hip today to bash Liszt. We seem to be in a fawning-and-gushing phase, aggravated by the bicentennial, and spearheaded by pianists who like to play Liszt’s music. (I can understand why, and maybe it’s for the very same reasons I don’t enjoy listening. Monty Python, revised: If you’ve enjoyed listening to this piece by Liszt just half as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it, then I’ve enjoyed it twice as much as you have.) It may be trite to call Liszt out for shallow virtuosity. But then every other approach seems just as stale. First, critics point to twilight and/or lesser-known works in which the “real” composer is supposed to reside (e.g., “Yes, I know that’s awful; but have you heard the ‘Funérailles’?”). Next, these become a justification for re-evaluating the virtuoso pieces for the “real” depth everyone else was too unsophisticated to see. Finally, the empty spectacle of the virtuoso works themselves is valorized through play or irony or some other postmodern fetish. We’re all supposed to stop taking ourselves/art/life so goddamn seriously, admit that all pleasure is guilty, and surrender ourselves to Liszt.

Once we’ve come out the other end, where is there to go but back to the beginning, and call Liszt’s music for what it is: a generally uninteresting spectacle of excess? Isn’t it possible to acknowledge his historical contribution to piano performance—that I wouldn’t have had my dozen recitals to go to last year had there been no Liszt to invent such a thing—without also having to like his music?

Anyway, such were my thoughts—at least some of them—on hearing the brilliant young Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall last October. She blazed her way through Prokofiev’s 6th sonata—Prokofiev’s piano music can never be played often enough, so say I—and then came back in the second half to play Liszt’s in B minor. It turned out to be a very long and painful second half. And the longer it went, the more painful it got. Don’t get me wrong, the rendition was technically perfect. But I still found myself squirming in my seat, wishing it were over. And when it was, even then I had not heard the last of Liszt: Wang played “Gretchen am Spinnrade” for one of her encores. (At least it’s a Schubert transcription.) Hearing the blind 2009 Van Cliburn competition gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsuji play “Un sospiro” and the concert paraphrase of Verdi’s Rigoletto in the same venue a few weeks later did not change my feelings. Nor did Peter Orth’s renditions of a Mephisto waltz and the Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude at Town Hall in late January. By this point I was starting to feel like a friend of mine who suffered through to the end of Ulysses just so he could say definitively that the book was crap, and no one could say to him, “Well, that’s because you never finished it.” And it was at the Yujo Pohjonen recital, somewhere in the midst of all that Liszt, listening to his beautifully balanced rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” sonata—a sonata that, better than maybe any other, is characterized by a profound simplicity of thematic materials, developed so imaginatively, to reach such unexpected heights—that the difference between the two composers appeared most stark. Now, any time I hear Liszt, I can’t help thinking of the opening bars of the “Pastorale.”


     About a month ago, Fate once again threw a Liszt-shaped obstacle in my path. Maurizio Pollini had been scheduled to play two recitals this spring, one at the end of April, the other at the beginning of May. He canceled, and Carnegie Hall was forced to find substitutes. (It’s amazing how much text one can generate around the trials and tribulations of hearing/not hearing Maurizio Pollini; see “Encore,” 5.9.10.) I had tickets for the April show; unfortunately, they called in Garrick Ohlsson, a pianist about whom I have tepid feelings at best (see “Spring Peoples Symphony Roundup,” 6.15.11). And guess what he was he slated to play? That’s right: an all-Liszt program. Thankfully, I was able to change my ticket for May 6. I had never heard of the sub—a French Canadian pianist named Louis Lortie (that’s him in the picture)—but the program was worth the gamble: Beethoven’s “Waldstein” and “Lebewohl” sonatas, and a cocktail of ballades, nocturnes, and the barcarolle by Chopin. According to the gentleman in the seat beside mine, Pollini had been going to play one all-Chopin program and one all-Beethoven. Maybe Lortie chose the Beethoven and Chopin out of a sense of duty to what the audiences were expecting to hear, particularly after Ohlsson chose to play neither.* In any case, it was the specter of Pollini, rather than the ghost of Liszt, that hung over the afternoon’s performance.

If Lortie assembled his program out of a sense of duty, he did not play the Beethoven as though it were a duty, either to Pollini or to the audience. He played it … well, playfully, highlighting contrasts among ideas rather than continuity between them. This was particularly noticeable in the third movement of the “Waldstein”—the differences in tempo and dynamics between the climax of the principal theme (bars 55-61) and the digressions that follow—and in the “Wiedersehn” movement of “Das Lebewohl,” between the “variations” that erupt from the delightfully anxious see-saw main idea established in bar 11. Now, it’s rare that one will enjoy a sonata with which one is intimately familiar if it is performed too far outside the horizons of one’s expectations. That said, it’s always nice to hear the different accents an unknown pianist will put on the familiar. In Lortie’s performance, the ascending left-hand phrases played against the descending arpeggios at the end of the exposition of the “Waldstein” (bars 82 and 84) stood out in a way I don’t remember ever hearing before. It at once retarded the forward momentum of the passage and  imparted a sort of longing for the tonic just as the music was settling back into the bustling opening theme.

The last two times I heard the “Waldstein” live, there was either a memorable flub (Emmanuel Ax on those stamping chords at the climax of the exposition (bars 62-5)) or something that clearly contradicted the score (Leif Ove Andsnes, who ignored the tremolo in the restatement of the opening theme (bars 14-15 & 18-19)—a whole expressive dimension of the opening idea reduced to mere repetition).** There were no such clear gaffes or liberties in Lortie’s performance (at least that I noticed). Quibbles, certainly—a tendency to be little too staccato in the “Waldstein”’s tempestuous moments, when the sonata demands more romantic wash. But then it’s out of just such quibbles that one’s relationship with a piece of music grows. And then there was much in Lortie’s detail-work to be admired. The slurred octaves (thumb-pinky glissandos?) toward the end of the third movement (bars 462-70)—such an odd, brief flourish, just when we think there can be nothing left in the composer’s bag of tricks—were executed with Debussian wispiness. Compare this to those clanging, chord-scaling octaves in the last movement of the “Lebewohl” (bars 37-44, etc.): a train crossing, right in the middle of a movement otherwise characterized by playful, joyous motion. I had just heard a disappointing performance of this sonata a couple of weeks before, so it was nice to hear these octaves restored to their full, disruptive charm.

It was also nice to hear Lortie really drag out the mere 28 bars of the second movement of the “Waldstein.” The story goes that Beethoven had planned a much more capacious second movement, but scrapped it for the “Introduzione” we now have, turning the original Andante into its own piece. But Lortie’s emphatically, almost Gouldianly slow execution made of this “Introduction” its own piece as well, highlighting its spare, straining beauty, its struggle to reach a climax—a restatement and expansion of the opening, the bass embellished, descending stepwise (mostly) to G as the right-hand figure climbs to full-octave leaps, to a series of harsh high Fs suspended over G and A flat. The G reappears in a different register as a pivot between the two movements: a non-ending that initiates the principal theme of the Rondo, from which the melody settles easily back to the tonic C. Lortie very much played that note subito forte, emphasizing its double role as both irresolution and introduction. (Or did he do so on account of the misplaced applause after the first movement?)

Interestingly, Lortie’s Chopin, the concert’s second half, sounded more dutiful than his Beethoven—a bit stiff, a bit plodding. (And this in the opinion of an ever-recovering prog rocker, who tends to like his Chopin a little stiff.) After the Beethoven, I didn’t imagine his Chopin would lack the rubato so essential to bringing the composer’s music to life. But the Chopin seemed to grow on him; he was better on third nocturne than on the first, better on the ballades than on the nocturnes, and best on the barcarolle, which ended the program.

I’ll leave the Chopin at that—good, better, best—in violation of all canons of good writing. As for the encores, they were Chopin, too, all three of them—or rather two; he ran the second and third together; but then they are adjacent etudes from the Opus 10. The first was another nocturne; it was the best Chopin he played the whole afternoon. Do nocturnes played as encores always sound more satisfying than nocturnes played during the regular program? Because I recall having a similar experience with a nocturne-encore at a Pollini concert. And then that Opus 10 No. 4 etude … could Lortie have known that was a perennial favorite Pollini encore for as well? When he was finished, I couldn’t help turning around to scan the rear of the auditorium. I half-expected to see the man in the flesh, standing in the very last row, applauding.


* Two notes. First, as I would learn from the review in the Times, Lortie had replaced Pollini once before, in 2003. Second, Lortie is no stranger to Liszt. He played the entire Années de pèlerinage in March 2011 at Alice Tully Hall. So maybe he felt he had already done his duty to the composer during the actual bicentennial year.

** No offense intended. Both their “Waldstein”s were otherwise lovely, as has been pretty much everything else I’ve had a chance to hear them perform.

The Interrupted Nocturne

     If Roberto Benigni’s name has become synonymous with the Holocaust comedy, perhaps Roman Polanski should get credit for making the first real Holocaust musical—Springtime for Hitler notwithstanding.

But if The Pianist (2002) is indeed a musical—and let us imagine for the sake of argument that it is—then it is a queer sort of musical: a musical of suspended performances, of music displaced and deferred; a musical where the absence of music is as significant as its presence.

The Pianist opens with a partial rendition of Chopin’s C# minor Nocturne (opus posthumous). We hear it over grainy images of Warsaw in 1939, the eve of the Nazi invasion. The music soon reveals itself to be a radio performance by renowned Chopin interpreter and Polish State Radio house pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose memoir the film is based. As the bombing begins, Szpilman, though a little shaken, refuses to stop playing. But after the frightened sound engineers flee, an explosion blows out the windows of the studio, and he is forced to follow them. We will wait more than two hours—six years of narrative time—for that nocturne to resume.

The interrupted nocturne forms one template for the way diegetic music is used in the film. After the Jews are herded into the ghetto, Szpilman turns to playing piano in the ghetto café. At one point, a well-dressed man at a nearby table asks him to pause in order to better hear the coins he tosses onto the tabletop, listening for which are counterfeit. The request is graciously made, but Szpilman is clearly exasperated. In a later scene, street musicians are forced to perform for Nazi soldiers, and the bystanders, many of them famished and exhausted, are forced to dance—until the traffic they have been waiting on finishes passing, the gates open, and the grotesque carnival is abruptly halted.

By the time Szpilman escapes the ghetto, his family has been sent to the camps, and the only remaining piano—the one in the café—stands silent, abandoned. Playing it is out of the question; instead, he will hide beneath the riser on which it stands until the immediate threat of Nazi violence has passed.

Once Szpilman’s Warsaw city odyssey begins, the trope of interrupted music is replaced by a slightly different one, of music displaced, deferred in space rather than in time. Wherever Szpilman is, music isn’t—or, if music is, it is imaginary. The Bach cello prelude, performed by Dorota, the woman Wladyslaw still loves but who is now married, unattainable, overheard from another room, and then glimpsed through a half-open door. The piano he hears tinkling away in the apartment next door to his first safehouse. The music he hears in his head, that ideal space where the Nazis can’t go, when he opens the lid of the piano in the second safehouse, positions his hands over the keyboard … and then the sweeping Grand Polonaise swells on the soundtrack, audible only to Szpilman and to us as he moves his fingers above the keys, his face beaming. After this second apartment is destroyed in the Warsaw uprising, Szpilman hides in the bombed-out hospital across the street. Starving, freezing, he plays an imaginary keyboard, humming his music quietly to himself. No more Grand Polonaise, and no more soundtrack. The man is almost defeated; the music is almost gone.

As for nondiegetic music, its infrequency—the occasional, restrained use of orchestral music; the lonely clarinet melody that punctuates some of the most tragic moments in the film (such as when Szpilman escapes the trains to the camps to find the ghetto deserted and pillaged)—makes it that much more poignant when it does appear, and the silences between that much more significant. (In the documentary included on the DVD, the set designer describes the filmmakers’ efforts to wash out the color as the story gets bleaker. This “visual silence” is analogous to the disappearance of music, as well as suggesting the moral silence of the Holocaust.)

So what happens to music deferred? It explodes, of course—in this case, in the climactic (if abridged) performance of Chopin’s G minor Ballade for Hosenfeld, the German officer who discovers Szpilman scrounging for food in a ruined home after the Nazis have leveled the city.* It’s a moment of catharsis hardly equaled in cinema, a spiritual homecoming that signals the film’s approaching resolution more clearly than either the German defeat or Szpilman’s rescue by Soviet troops. At that moment, we know the nocturne will resume, closing the six-year wound of the Holocaust, ending the long night suspended between broken night-songs.

It is difficult to imagine a Chopin composition more suited to the moment than the G minor Ballade. It has just the right mix of searching angst and triumphant answer, of defiance and melancholy, and the sort of bold, emphatic finale that Chopin only matched in a couple of his scherzos. The C# minor Nocturne, the piece Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld, would have been far too ruminative for such a moment—the music of a man reminiscing about loss, not one holding on desperately to his humanity. Of course, as long as he was going to deviate from the memoir, Polanski could have chosen the “Revolutionary” etude—that grandiose, martial volley of notes about an older attack on Warsaw, and about the heroic Polish resistance. It would be hard to think of a worse choice. This is not a moment of patriotic resistance and nationalism, but of individual human resilience. (How Polanski to use a cracked version of the etude instead, in The Tenant!) Even the appearance of the “Moonlight” sonata late in the film—played, one supposes, by German officers—sounds weirdly lugubrious measured against the incessant cruelty of the previous two hours. In contrast, the Ballade chafes at the margins of the narrative and the cinematic frame, threatening to spill out of the diegetic world.


I will be chided for calling The Pianist a musical at the beginning of this post, and I admit this was an exaggeration meant to catch your attention—you know, the sorts of shoddy tricks we teach our writing students. But I think there is an element of truth in this assertion, one that, even if we don’t put The Pianist in the same genre as, say, Singin’ in the Rain, does allow us to think about the film differently. When it begins, with the staticky Nocturne, what should be (non-diegetic) title music reveals itself to be a radio transmission of Szpilman’s soon-to-be-interrupted performance. (There are no titles, anyway. They appear at the end, during a live performance of the Grand Polonaise: here, the “walk out of the theater” music is actually the end of the story.) Other times, we are unsure whether the music is “on” or “off” stage—the “Moonlight” sonata, for example—or we hear music on the soundtrack which only Szpilman hears. The displaced music is another example: it is happening in the story, but outside the frame. I think it is partly this blurring of diegetic and non-diegetic music that energizes the Ballade. As in a musical, the performance is at once inside and outside the diegesis: it draws its power from both deferred narrative resolution (the horizontal), and from its status as a musical event independent of the surrounding narrative (the vertical). In fact, these two sources seem to feed each other: the performance is energized by its function as catharsis, while the narrative is energized by the ekphrastic brilliance of the performance.

In this light, the questions, “Could Szpilman really have played that Ballade after all he had endured, and after so long without touching a keyboard?” and “Wouldn’t it make sense for the piano to be out of tune?” are moot. Here we have this hobbling, hollow-eyed tramp licking out dirty pots, a sliver of a human being, a ragdoll, Molloy lost in bombed-out Warsaw. But the moment he sits down at the piano bench and claws out the first climbing octaves of the Ballade, all of this ceases to matter. As in Dreyer’s Ordet, reality is superseded by cinema; the violation of the possible only confirms a new order of (cinematic) reality which does not cancel the reality before it, but rather transforms it, raising it to a higher level.

Maybe it’s that, since by this point in the film there is nothing so terrible we can’t believe it—a child beaten to death trying to crawl under the wall back into the ghetto, an old man thrown from a window in his wheelchair, a young woman shot in the forehead for asking a question—so there is no act of heroism that can seem out of place. In such circumstances, everything about humanity is magnified, the potential for generosity and heroism as much as cruelty.


The Pianist’s use of music and silence should be considered not only in terms of genre, but in terms of Polanski’s oeuvre. About halfway through, the film shifts radically away from the standard visual rhetoric of German cruelty and Jewish suffering (albeit taken to new heights by Polanski’s visceral style), and toward an apartment horror story very much in the vein of Polanski’s trio of great horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Tenant (1976). In each case, the overarching atmosphere of dread is underscored through the sounds (and occasionally sights) of other lives impinging on the central character’s: through walls thin enough to see shadows behind, old doors hidden behind bureaus, and the grotesquely-distorting glass of peepholes. Piano music haunts the buildings where each of these three films is set: “Für Elyse” in Rosemary’s Baby; the descending major scale with one dreadfully wrong note played over and over in Repulsion; and the similarly repeated failure to play the opening figure of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude in The Tenant. (N.B.: I was tempted to call this post “Other Pianos, Other Rooms.”) In two of these films, the piano contributes not just to the ambience, but to our appreciation of the protagonists’ increasingly disturbed minds: in Repulsion, the cracked mirror of tonality reflects the oppressive monotony of life for Carole (Catherine Deneuve), a catatonically-repressed hairdresser; in The Tenant, a mangled Chopin etude suggests the Polish emigree’s inability to find place and identity, and his subsequent morbid fascination with the identity of his apartment’s previous tenant. And Rosemary’s Baby? Heard through a wall, even a lullaby can sound sinister … just as a phone conversation, glimpsed through a doorway, the half-seen body the visual analog of a conversation only half-heard, half-understood, becomes, in Polanski’s universe, suspicious.

Unlike its horror-film progenitors, the music in The Pianist is neither the reflection of a fractured consciousness nor the sign of an actual, threatening Other (even, I would argue, when the music is played by a likely enemy). It is rather the only solace the protagonist knows in the suffocating terror of occupied Warsaw. The trajectory of the film is not the slow dissolution of the walls of consciousness which keep the threatening Other (real or imagined) at bay, but the struggle to survive in silence—the physical, emotional, even moral silence which one internalizes as a survival mechanism—until those walls can be broken down, and Szpilman can be reunited with his beloved Chopin. Watching The Pianist reminds us just how sparing Polanski’s use of music often is. Many of his films seem to prefer silence; some positively crave it. In Repulsion, for instance, noise, musical or other, is always a violation: buzzers, incessantly ticking clocks, crashing cymbals, and the frenetic jazz that follows Carole around London.

With The Pianist, it’s as though Polanski had finally revealed his childhood experience as a Holocaust survivor to be the trauma underlying so much of his cinema. For forty years it had been displaced onto the apartment buildings of New York, London and Paris … as well as onto the fatalistic narratives set in Los Angeles and Cornwall. In this regard, perhaps the chief irony of the film is that, while the phantom pianist of Polanski’s horror movies has finally stepped out from behind the wall, he finds that he has not brought his music with him.

The Pianist is not the only one of Polanski’s films framed by performances. Death and the Maiden begins with a snippet of the Amadeus Quartet performing the title piece, and closes with a complete performance of the quartet’s first movement. Like The Pianist, the rest of the film is almost entirely music-less. Death and the Maiden and The Pianist are narratives about silence—the ethical silence of sanctioned atrocity; the historical silence of active forgetting; the silence of the victim in the face of state terror. But if Death and the Maiden is a manual for the misappropriation of art in the service of evil, The Pianist never allows music to be so sullied. (But then it’s not a movie about Wagner.)

Who would have thought Polanski would return to Warsaw, the site of the trauma, for a rare “happy” ending, the mighty resolution of the Grand Polonaise, complete with pornographic close-ups of the pianist’s hands? How different from the irresolution of the concluding performance in Death and the Maiden: the power relationships in the positions and the play of glances between torturer, victim, and attorney; the sense that nothing has changed except knowledge, and that knowledge changes nothing. “I want my Schubert back,” says Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver) in Death and the Maiden. “My favorite composer.” Does she get him back? More broadly, can art ever be reclaimed from its appropriation by and for terror? I’m not sure. Most of Polanski’s great films end this way: without real cadences. But the The Pianist most certainly restores to Szpilman his Chopin. And ours.


* The Nocturne Szpilman actually played for Hosenfeld is a far less technically demanding piece than the Ballade. Szpilman’s memoir also reveals that the piano was indeed out of tune. (My argument notwithstanding, I sincerely doubt Sony would release a soundtrack with either the Ballade or the Nocturne played on an out-of-tune piano.) The question of the historical accuracy of the film’s beginning is less clear, at least to me, sinceI haven’t read the memoir. According to the synopses I looked at (on szpilman.net and, of course, Wikipedia), the C# minor Nocturne was part of the program Szpilman played for the last Polish State Radio broadcast in 1939. However, it is not indicated that the performance was interrupted, or that the station itself was damaged. Rather, it was the power station on which the broadcast depended that was destroyed. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia entry on Szpilman, the film’s dramatization of the event—the station bombed, the performance abandoned in medias res—and Szpilman’s memoir seem to have been conflated.

Bartok, Salt Lake, Emerson & Me

The jazz guitar instructors at the University of Utah liked to tell us, their Intro Jazz Guitar students, that we were much maligned by the rest of the music department. It’s true that we were a motley-looking bunch. Many of us weren’t even music majors. We were drawn from all corners of the university: architecture, engineering, and in my case, English. This was the fall of 1992, and I had just entered the “U of U” as a graduate student. I was supposed to take two classes a quarter, for a total of eight credits. Full-time status, however, required nine, without which I wouldn’t be able to defer my loans. Eventually I found out that I could take one credit of “independent study,” to be used toward my dissertation. But in my happy ignorance I went looking for an undergraduate class to make full time. Music Theory wouldn’t have me—the class was packed with majors—so I opted for Jazz Guitar.

The guitar class turned out to be a great way to refresh between teaching freshman writing in the morning and taking graduate classes in the afternoon. Three days a week I’d lug my guitar halfway across the U of U’s sprawling campus, down from the Medical Plaza apartments at the base of the Wasatch foothills, to Orson Spencer Hall, where the English department was housed. I’d leave the guitar in my cubicle while I went to teach. Then I’d carry it across the rest of campus, down the hill and one leg of the horseshoe of President’s Circle, to David Gardner Hall. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t even the class that helped; just going into the music building, another world within the balkanized world of academia, was purging.

Across the hall from the guitar class, Ardean Watts, then-director of the University Symphony Orchestra, was holding his own “class.” It was called “Music for Pure Enjoyment.” Coming up the stairs, I’d run smack into a bulletin board, the sign tacked there promising “No analysis!” Underneath would be the program for the week. He did the entire cycle of Mozart piano concertos that fall, and if memory serves, selections by Schoenberg, Vaughan-Williams, and Beethoven. Although he always chose the program, Watts invited students to bring in their favorite recordings of the programmed pieces.

But the day I walked out of guitar class and, rather than going down the stairs, timidly crossed the hall and sat down, Watts and a few others were immersed in Béla Bartók’s string quartets. As the narrator of a Ken Burns documentary would say: It was like nothing he had ever heard before. Except Ken Burns says that so many times it ends up sounding like bullshit. To me, it really was like no music I had ever heard before. I didn’t even think a violin could sound like that. It was as if I had walked in on the middle of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and listened for a minute before someone deigned to tell me that, by the way, I was listening to a guitar.

I didn’t tell Watts that, of course. He was a charming old man with a long white goat’s beard and a tremor. He would sit among the students who had happened to wander in that day, sometimes just listening, sometimes engaging his fellow listeners in conversation. He was too enthusiastic ever to sound pedantic. Like everything he had to tell you about music was the most wonderful secret in the world. I didn’t answer him when he told me that Bartók’s compositions were “so logical,” because my first thought was, So was Manson. He must have assumed I was more musically literate than I was—he mustn’t have noticed the guitar. Because for me, there was (and still is) something in the quartets’ apparent lack of logic, their unpredictability, their constant shifting between ideas, as if they were being made up on the spot, that excited me.

Watts also told me that Bartók was the greatest innovator of the string quartet after Beethoven. He brought out the score, which I perused, though I was unable to follow it to the music. Before I left, he showed me the compact disc case: four young men in tuxes, holding up their instruments like proud fisherman showing off their catches of the day. I scribbled down the name.

One day after walking in on “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” I drove over to Discriminator Records (an all-classical music store in Salt Lake, sadly many years gone) and bought the Emerson Quartet’s recording of the six string quartets by Béla Bartók. For a while I listened to a quartet a day. Then I listened to them in pairs, evens and odds, by period, by movement. I quickly learned that I had walked in on the third and fourth quartets, the most dissonant of the bunch, although it’s likely any of them would have affected me in the same way.

Before “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” my understanding of Bartók’s music had been based solely on a few of his orchestral works: The Miraculous Mandarin suite, which had terrified me as a child, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Listening to the quartets, however, re-introduced these familiar pieces to me, forcing me to hear them in a new way. Ironically, though Bartók was himself a pianist, and piano was the instrument most familiar to me, his concertos and works for solo piano have taken much longer to grow on me. This may be a broader problem of the percussiveness of the piano in modern music … except that in other modern composers, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, that very percussiveness often thrills me. Maybe Bartók was just too much the gypsy; I always imagine him carting his wax cylinders between villages in the Carpathians, recording folk music, a task he believed was more important than composing original works. In my favorite photo, he sits at a desk stacked with books, transcribing with his left hand, the horn of a phonograph beside his right ear.


I am sure I’m not the only one who came to know the Emerson Quartet through Bartók, or vice-versa. As the program for their fall 1995 performance of the entire cycle of Bartók’s quartets at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall noted, Bartók has been “something of a cause” for them. They certainly play him as if he were a cause: honed to a near-military rigor, plaintive, demanding. The grueling three-and-a-half hours (with two intermissions) that are required to play all six quartets can only be explained as a cause. I don’t know that they’ve repeated the feat since. Not that they’ve ignored Bartók or anything. They may not play him all the time, or even as often as I’d like; but the quartets are still pretty regularly included in their programs (last August it was the sixth, at the new Alice Tully Hall).

I think discovering the Emerson Quartet represented something else for me, too, something in which Bartók played a role. So many of the classical performers I had listened to were of my parents’ generation or older, because it was my parents’ music, my parents’ records. It was an inherited taste. In my young adulthood, that taste was just beginning to be reshaped under the pressures of new musical discoveries. And now here was a quartet not much older than I, playing a “classical” music that sounded utterly fresh to my ears. So my taste in “classical” music needn’t be preserved in amber, carried around as a sentimental object shaped like home. It was much more dynamic than that. By extension, “classical” music itself needn’t be treated—as its very name damns it to be—like a museum exhibit, endowed with a transcendent authority that simultaneously robs individual pieces of their language. It, too, was something vital, changeable, and renewable.

In the two chances I had to see the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake, as part of the Chamber Music Society’s series, they followed the standard concert-program formula of two classical or romantic pieces to one modern or contemporary.* At the time, the decision to include any modern or contemporary music on the program seemed daring—the “cause” mentioned in the Avery Fisher Hall program, and the reason performers who play contemporary music are invariably described as its “champions.” But to really explain why I thought this was daring requires a bit more context.

Salt Lake City is much more diverse today (religiously, ethnically, and politically) than when I first moved there. The geography of this diversity, however, is probably about the same as when I left a decade ago: a mostly Hispanic working-class west side; a liberal/radical population ensconced in “the avenues” on the foothills around the university and a few other pockets in or near downtown, mostly transplanted from other places (like California); and a conservative, mostly Mormon and native (or, when not native, Californian or Pacific islander) population living pretty much everywhere else. As an out-of-towner, an east-coaster, and an ersatz New Yorker when I wanted to put on airs, I saw the Emersons as the envoys of a dissonance that the staid harmonies of the Beehive State could not tolerate.

Never mind that I had been introduced to this music in Utah, among music students and teachers who were likely much more conservative than I. Never mind that, relatively speaking, Bartók was a pretty conservative composer—I still didn’t know what “postwar” meant in musical terms, and my fusiony conception of jazz was only just beginning to be unsettled by Monk and Coltrane. Never mind, for that matter, Big Bill Haywood, or Joe Hill. No, never mind any of that: I went not just to hear the Emerson Quartet, but to champion a modern music I was sure many in the audience would find intolerable. I got what I asked for, both times: Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 the first time around, and the second, a 1994 piece by the American composer Ned Rorem, which the quartet had commissioned. Some members of the audience tittered, some crossed their arms like the music was arguing with them, some shook their heads and tugged on their wives’ complacent blouse-sleeves. I left feeling clearly superior, lamenting my extended sojourn among the philistines. Back home—not Jersey, but the avenues—I listened to Bartók while my Deadhead roommate chain-smoked Camels and the snow came down hard outside. He was a communications doctoral student from Michigan who liked to drop acid and listen to two different things on the stereo simultaneously. He thought the Bartók sounded cool. And so together we waved the flag of Difference, waved our freak-flag high, standing in the foothills above the city, and watching the storms roll in over the valley.

Today, I look back at what I had there—not just the exposure to a culture of ideas that came from being a grad student in a school full of brilliant people, but those tightly-knit arts and activist communities, driven together by opposition to a dominant culture that was itself less monolithic than I had presumed it to be—and wonder what I was so anxious about. (I’m sure I was already wondering this the second time I moved away, at the end of 2001; it’s always harder leaving mountains the second time.) In a sense, the Bartók quartets were of a piece with everything I was doing in my classes—Derrida and Beckett, Genet and Baldwin, Bataille and Melville. My standard line about hearing the quartets for the first time was that they rewired my brain. But that was just a particularly dramatic instance of something that, in a more subtle way, was going on the whole time I was in grad school. And I think it is the cumulative impact of a thousand such revelations, from the most mundane to the most mind-shattering, that bonds us to the humanities, to the arts and culture, and makes us as eager as Watts was to try to share that in the classroom. Like the sign said: “Music for Pure Enjoyment.”

* The first half of this post (and a few sentences in the second) is a revision of something I wrote in 1996 or thereabouts, shortly after a performance by the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake. Although I couldn’t find a place for the descriptive passage that follows in the new version, I enjoyed rediscovering it, and so include it as an addendum: Phillip Setzer, violinist, is petite, curly-haired, and dreamy-eyed, a miniature Tony Curtis. He displays a gravity that sets the tone for the quartet as a whole. From the first moment, at least during the more rhythmic passages, he sways madly. Next to him, Eugene Drucker, the other violinist, is heavier-set and less animated than Mr. Setzer; he keeps one eyebrow raised like Leonard Nimoy, the eye zeroed slantways on the music before him, a cowlick plastered to the eyebrow-side of his forehead, his bow-tie a little crooked. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is tall and gangly, sized for the viola the way Setzer is for the violin. His hair is streaked with grey, and he doesn’t so much hug his instrument, as the violinists inevitably do, as try to surround it. Rather than swaying, he rocks the instrument on its axis, fingers walking the neck like spiders. I’ve never managed to see Dutton as well as I’d like, because I always choose a seat in the auditorium where he his half-turned from me. But maybe this is only so I can better observe the cellist, David Finckel, who is my favorite. Leaning back with the instrument poised against him, so that it seems like a giant belly, his feet turned out, he is as much the visual as the sonic anchor of the quartet. The posture gives him a deceivingly sated appearance; he is actually the most active member. Because unlike the others, who hardly glance away from their music, Mr. Finckel’s eyes are as mobile as Charlie Chaplin’s. [N.B.: I’m indebted to Gerald Mast for this observation, in Film/Cinema/Movie.] They dart from Dutton to Setzer, Setzer to Drucker, expressing variously the enormity of his undertaking, to a kind of embarrassment at some inaudible mistake, to satisfaction at a well-rendered phrase. Somehow, these four very distinct human beings create a marvelously coherent sound, as if forged from a single consciousness.

Spring Peoples’ Symphony Roundup

This post was intended to be a collection of thumbnail reviews of the spring Peoples’ Symphony Town Hall concerts. During the colder months, these Sunday matinée performances provided the perfect excuse to hop over to the beautiful main reading room of the research library and jot down a few thoughts. But I didn’t feel like writing about all the Sunday concerts … particularly after I spotted The New Yorker’s Alex Ross (I’m pretty sure it was him!) in the lobby during the intermission of the Ebène Quartet’s performance; and rather than put him in a verbal headlock with my own clearly superior review, I figured I’d let him and his struggling little weekly take a crack at it. Then there were a few Saturday shows (held evenings at Washington Irving High School, on 17th Street) that I did feel like writing about. Then I thought, well, I’ll just stick to piano … but that didn’t work either. What follows, then, is a collection of thumbnail reviews without any overarching program. Even “thumbnail” is probably a bad description, unless you have (1) very large thumbs or (2) very long nails.


On January 30th, Hélène Grimaud attacked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano sonata K310 as if it were the work of a high romantic. The sonata defended itself reasonably well, certainly better than many a Mozart sonata might under similar circumstances. Not that I’m one to complain; I often find myself seeking out what is proto-romantic in Mozart; the tempestuous K310 is case in point (the fantasie in C minor, K475 is another). Except that there was something muddled about Grimaud’s execution, too—a combination, I think, of too much pedal and an overemphasis on the left hand. (I felt similarly about her performance of the Liszt B minor sonata, different as that piece is: much of it went by in a blur, like near woods from the window of a speeding train.) That noted, there was a dynamic intensity to her playing I rather admired; she brought something out of that Mozart sonata I hadn’t heard before.

I ended up gravitating toward the modern pieces, one entirely unfamiliar to me (the opus 1 sonata by Alban Berg, a wonderful seething ocean of notes), the other the six Romanian folk dances (BB 68) by Béla Bartók. Grimaud played these dances with a crispness and luminosity that nothing else in the day’s program matched. It made me want to hear whatever recordings she might have of Bartók. (Just one thing: I counted only five. Maybe she was tired from all that Liszt? Indeed, she played no encore.)

Something else refreshing about this concert: the Bartók was last, rather than squished innocuously into the middle of the program. Most concerts would have flipped the order, put the Bartók next to the Berg and ended with the Liszt. Modern music is just too bitter a taste for an audience to leave with. We have to have dessert. I guess this is the reason why—to mix my culinary metaphors—we’re so often offered 20th-century sandwiches on 19th-century bread. I’m reminded of the famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, the one where Jack Nicholson can’t get plain wheat toast, and so orders a chicken sandwich and then asks the waitress to hold everything—including the chicken. “You want me to hold the chicken, huh?” she says, arms going akimbo. “I want you to hold it between your knees!” Nicholson spits back.

So it is with the 20th century: many patrons, it seems, would have performers hold the Berg, Bartók and most of what followed between their knees.


Pianist Inon Barnatan appeared at Washington Irving High School’s auditorium on the evening of February 26th with a program unified under the theme “Darkness Visible.” According to the program notes, “All the pieces reflect an awareness of what lies beneath.”

This theme was perhaps most clearly articulated in the Thomas Adès piece of the same name, and in the Schubert sonata with which the program concluded. The former was really revelatory, built around metastasizing trills pierced by stunned notes, single tones that the young pianist put his whole body behind, as if a current had run through him, Kristallnacht phrases giving way to barely-audible rumblings. “Darkness Visible” is only the most recent of several Adès pieces for piano I’ve heard in performance over the previous year or two; they have been consistently impressive.

The Schubert was remarkable in part for the somewhat affectless way Barnatan played the first movement. Once I became accustomed, it allowed me to hear connections to earlier Schubert sonatas that I had not noticed before. I say this in part because, despite its cannibalized final movement—its main theme is a reworking of the second movement of the D 537 sonata, which was never published in Schubert’s lifetime—the last sonatas (the D 958 through 960) have always seemed to me a breed apart, and very much on a par with the better-known late sonatas of Beethoven. What makes the D 959 stand out even from this elect group, however, is the stunning “what lies beneath” moment in the middle of the second movement. The movement begins with two turns through a funereal waltz … when, instead of a new variation, a long, gloaming figure gives way to an eight-note platform for a trill; the left hand mirrors it—and all at once the veil is rent, the score flung about the room, and you’re looking, I don’t know, fifty, a hundred years into music’s future, a death’s head staring back at you from the other side. The only way to restore “equilibrium” is through a series of closed-fist strikes, reminiscent (in this program, together with some of the figures directly preceding it) of the Adés … but as in any narrative, this new equilibrium is of a totally different order than the one with which the movement began, the difference signaled by the interjection of echoing notes, mournful looks backward. Barnatan handled both elements of the movement beautifully, all measured but menaced lyricism at the beginning and end, in the middle all attack and fury.

The rest of the program was similarly striking: the exuberant Ravel valse, Britten and Debussy. I don’t want to end, though, without mentioning the second encore. Did my ear deceive me, or was that a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti? In his biography of Scarlatti (post pending), Ralph Kirkpatrick disparages the (mis)use of Scarlatti’s music as an empty vessel into which a pianist could pour his virtuosity. But for someone who grew up well after Kirkpatrick’s time, when one is much more likely to hear Schubert for an encore than Scarlatti, this was both a pleasant surprise and an unmitigated pleasure.

My one complaint: the auditorium. Understandable that some patrons might have to leave before the end of the Schubert, but they turned it into a sonata for piano and squeaking door. Oy. Then again, what with the “darkness visible” theme, it wasn’t hard to imagine the door as the entrance to a crypt; and all the white heads I could see looking toward the stage turned from a cast for I, Claudius into so many memento mori.


I went to see pianist Garrick Ohlsson a number of years back on the campus of the University of Utah, while I was a graduate student there. I’ve sort of avoided him ever since. My recollection is that his playing was pretty wooden—and this from the first American pianist to win the International Chopin competition (in 1970), and who played an all-Chopin program at the Utah concert, if memory serves. That concert was at the newly-renovated Libby Gardner Concert Hall, in the music building of the university campus. I remember Billy Taylor (R.I.P.), whom I also had the privilege to see there, looking the hall up and down from the stage, saying, almost to himself, “Nice hall, nice hall, nice hall …” And so it is. Ever since hearing Ohlsson there, though, I’ve wondered if the acoustics were to blame, something like that infamous concrete slab under the stage at Carnegie Hall, only removed after nine years of musicians’ complaints.

Ohlsson’s March 6th performance at the (so far as I know) acoustically-unchallenged Town Hall was a chance to re-assess the pianist … and likely my own taste as well. I have to admit that I stayed for only for the first half, though not for anything having to do with Ohlsson. The second half was all Granados, and I’ve been so spoiled by guitar transciptions of this composer’s music that I have a hard time appreciating him on piano. Anyway, given that this was a re-assessment, the all-Chopin first half seemed more than adequate.

The opening nocturne in F was not promising, but Ohlsson loosened up for some of the selections from Opus 25 etudes that followed, particularly the limpidly-executed #1 (“The Wind Harp”), and in the odd, loping, thoroughly enjoyable way he took the #2 for a walk. Overall, he played the etudes more slowly than I am accustomed to hearing them; and between this and his restraint with the pedal, I sometimes got the impression that he was dissecting Chopin rather than interpreting him. The etude #7, for example, depends so much on a dialogue between the hands, as the melodic line, carried by the left, dances around, meets, and sometimes barrels right through the gently persistent chords in the right. In Ohlsson’s hands, however, the piece seemed to lose its way: the two elements never coalesced into a single focus of expression. In the end, the etude sounded ponderous instead of profound.

This was decicedly not the case, though, with his spirited rendition of the awesome polonaise in F sharp minor. Perhaps this piece is simply a more adequate vehicle for his power. The scherzo #1 was similarly exciting—those brazen chords in the finale still clang in my ear’s memory. Overall, I found more to admire in this performance than in the one I heard some ten years ago. Maybe I’m just mature (!) and cosmopolitan (?!) enough now to hear out alternative interpretations.


It was a night of flying hair, horse and human, when the ATOS Trio took the stage at Washington Irving High on April 9th. Nor could this be blamed on the modern music that string players tend to malign for ruining their bows: this was a program firmly in the 18th and 19th century idioms. It was rather the passion and intensity of the performance, the two string players bowing ferociously through Beethoven’s “Ghost” and Dvorák’s third, leaving halos of tugged-out horsehair on the stage around their chairs, string players’ snow angels. I focused much of my attention on the cellist, Stefan Heinemeyer. He appeared to me the essence of the romantic spirit: stocky, fierce, with long black hair and a full beard, and (why not?) “eyes that flashed with fire.” Cellists are often my favorite players to watch in trios and quartets, and this Hoffmannesque fire-spirit and latter-day Samson was at once anchor and mainmast, only resting to comb those great black locks back from his forehead.

All in all an inspired and inspiring performance, matched only by the Jupiter Quartet’s rendition of Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 1 at the end of the season. As for the ATOS: I wondered if their proximity to the audience made a difference in terms of the amount of energy they were able to communicate. They were forced to play in front of the curtain; the stage itself was occupied by the set of Washington Irving High’s upcoming production of Hair.

And yes, they did oil that goddamned door.


I was pleasantly surprised by pianist Anna Polonsky of the Schumann Trio (Town Hall, April 17th). My experience with trios has been that the piano tends to be the weak link. I’ve often wondered whether there is something generic about this, the piano asked to play a relatively subordinate role. Polonsky showed me that this is not the case: her playing was vigorous enough that I longed to hear her in solo recital. And yet, at no point did I get the sense that she was overstepping her role. Quite the opposite: her playing was dutiful (forgive the domestic metaphor), attentive to Mr Tree’s and McGill’s cues (viola and clarinet, respectively). To each composer she brought the requisite stamp and color: clarity and grace to the Mozart trio, like a good five-paragraph essay; pomp and grandeur to Schumann’s “Märchenerzählungen.”

I only wished they had played Bartók’s “Contrasts”—after all, the Schumann Trio was formed to “explore the rich, and somewhat under-represented, repertoire for clarinet, piano, and viola or violin,” as the program notes said. Just a few nights before, over at Weill Recital Hall (part of Carnegie’s complex of halls, it is an elegant and intimate little chamber venue), I had heard “Contrasts” performed by the Ensemble ACJW, the first time in 15 years I’d heard it live. It would have been a nice opportunity for comparison, particularly since this performance reminded me of how close to cacophony modern music can come. My impression was that these young players slowly brought the piece under control, feeling their way through the second movement and finding their stride in the third.

And as long as I’m writing about the ACJW concert, I might as well come full-circle and say something about Mozart’s K375 serenade for winds that followed it. It’s the sort of charmingly inoffensive dross a Mozart or Haydn could pick out from between his toes whenever the need presented itself. It is aptly named a serenade … though maybe what was most refreshing was coming to it without expectations—one advantage of hearing music you have no purchase on or familiarity with. I enjoyed the symmetry of the instrumentation—two each of clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and horn—and even more, the symmetry of exchange across the semicircle of musicians. Oddly, it reminded me of nothing so much as watching Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.


Last December I attended a Sunday afternoon People’s Symphony Concert at Town Hall, the first of the 2010-11 season. I’ll have more to say about the idiosyncratic culture of this concert series in the future, and will take the opportunity now and again to review exceptional performances. In this post, however, I wanted to place the focus elsewhere.

The afternoon’s entertainment was a duo, cello and piano, playing a mix of Romantic and contemporary music: Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Gulda, Schnittke. According to the program notes, the cellist, one Friedrich Kleinhapl, has performed with several major European orchestras and around the world as a soloist, and has recorded 11 CDs.

What the program notes did not mention (and of course there is no reason why they should have) was that Mr Kleinhapl is almost certainly less than five feet tall, while his accompanist, a Mr Andreas Woyke, is seven feet if he is an inch.

As a result, Mr Kleinhapl was barely visible over the shoulder of his cello, and his left hand seemed phantasmagorically disembodied as it scurried around the fingerboard. Mr Woyke’s piano bench stood well back on a six-inch riser, probably so that his knees would not be cramped under the keyboard, and he could use the pedals comfortably.*

It did not help matters—or, depending on your perspective, perhaps it did—that Mr Kleinhapl has a bowl haircut and sparse mustache-beard, while Mr Woyke is bald as a stone.

Remarkably, when the petite Mr Kleinhapl was on stage alone, the impression of his smallness left me—he seemed adequately sized, even perfectly sized, for his instrument. In fact, when he stood to take a bow after the Gulda cadenza, I noticed that his cello was almost exactly as tall as he—or he was almost exactly as tall as his cello—I am honestly not sure which way to phrase it. But when Mr Woyke returned for the Rachmaninoff sonata, my impression of Mr Kleinhapl’s smallness returned: he seemed squeezed into a corner, dwarfed not just by the man behind him, but by the piano, which suddenly appeared an instrument fashioned for Titans. Even his proximity to the edge of the stage made him seem smaller, the giant looming in the background like a mountain.

Maybe the stage was an Ames room, I thought, and we (the members of the audience) were the victims of an optical illusion. But had this been the case, when the two musicians approached each other after each piece to take a bow, they would have arrived at some equilibrium middle stature. Instead, the reverse happened: when Mr Kleinhapl, animated by the music, took Mr Woyke’s right hand in his left, the former seemed to shrink, and the latter to grow, until I thought the pianist would slip the cellist into his coat pocket, and exit the stage with him.

And so an element of the carnivalesque was helpless but to enter Town Hall that afternoon, and soon I began imagining the performance this way: I thought Mr Kleinhapl should rightly be standing on Mr Woyke’s shoulder, or balanced on a chair held by one leg in the pianist’s right hand, the latter dressed like a strongman. They might have juggled torches and performed feats of acrobacy.

And yet, musically, was this not precisely what they were doing?

From a musical perspective, what was most curious is that the visual difference invited me to ponder the musical difference in timbre and sonority between the two instruments—to listen, that is, not just to two different melodies, or melody plus accompaniment, but to two different means of production of sound; to hear the cello as a cello and the piano as a piano, and to remark mentally on the contrast between them.

The afternoon’s contrasts did not end with the performers. Unlike the other PSC series at Washington Irving High School, where non-balcony seating is general admission, seats at Town Hall are assigned. My seat is broken; I usually sit one seat to the left, if it is unoccupied. Anyway, my seat is directly behind the seat of a gentleman who contorts his body according to the mood of the music, alternately crumpling and straightening like a puppet when its strings slacken and then are pulled taut, throwing his head back and his hands in the air one moment, fingers tensed, as if he were silently crying out, and then rocking forward until his head is almost between his knees. I don’t know whether his movements are a result of disease (they are vaguely Parkinsonian), or a constitutional lack of inhibition, or simply a deep connection to the music, which, on this particular afternoon, alternately captivated and alienated me.

After the first of three pieces by Alexander Zemlinsky with which the concert opened, and then again after the end of the three pieces together, the ushers admitted latecomers, at which point two young women entered and sat to my immediate left. One of them could not stop neurotically and metronomically picking at the corner of her program, and both of them fidgeted distractedly until the intermission, after which they did not return. By then I had already reached across the one nearer to get the one further to leave her program alone—this during the Schnittke, a moody piece punctuated by long silences, which had held me riveted until the program-picking and fidgeting started, and after which I found it impossible to regain my concentration.

Oh, I cursed these young women’s progeny to the seventh generation—I, who on this particular afternoon would have had the musicians juggling torches, and with a popcorn vendor walking up and down the aisles of my imagination!

* Interestingly, according to the harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, in his biography of Domenico Scarlatti—about which and whom and I will be posting presently—“pedals … were rare in the eighteenth century … the dampers of most early pianos were lifted by knee levers” (p. 182 of the Apollo edition).


An hour or so before dusk last Friday I walked out of the Upper West Side and into Central Park, started north following the dirt riding trail along the embankment of the reservoir. This was the first real day of fall; the park had the feel of a location shoot for Wuthering Heights, sky all overcast and wind gusting leaves off the trees. The trail climbed slowly, meeting the top of the embankment at the reservoir’s northwest corner. From there the water looked like the pate of a great tonsure, and the fountain in the distance like the spout of a whale. Maybe the whole island was leviathan, I mused, and that its blowhole. Walking north again, I glanced back now and then, until all I could see was the top of the spout and the mist. The illusion was complete.

I had just watched King Kong for the umpteenth time, and for the second in recent memory on the Big Screen, so I had leviathans on the brain. What struck me this time around was that all the movie’s beauty is in its stop-motion behemoths. The name of the craft is actually misleading: the creatures are in constant motion from the moment they appear: tails and necks writhe, wings flap, mouths roar or hiss; when they square off, they feint and jab, pounce, snap, and pummel. There is a great ka-boom every time their bodies hit the ground. Watching them dance, I felt like I was not at a horror movie, but at one of the first great musicals of that genre’s golden age: Busby Berkeley and Willis O’Brien collapsed into each other.

A few days earlier I had gotten an email from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where I briefly volunteered some years back, about the carcass of a blue whale that had washed up on the California coast. The email was encouraging people to go see the animal for themselves, and to touch it—a rare opportunity, it said, to touch the largest mammal that ever lived (the carcass measured 80 feet). There was a link to Facebook pictures of its body, with people climbing along and around it. I thought of the “Bower in the Arcasides” chapter of Moby-Dick, one of my dozen or so favorite chapters in the book, where a sperm whale’s beached skeleton, “woven over with vines,” has become an object of worship and a chapel, “the skull an altar,” incense-smoke rising from its bony blowhole.

As I walked and pondered I was listening to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a piece to which I find myself returning with the sort of routine urgency that one returns to a place of prayer. The Preludes and Fugues document the composer’s struggle with the leviathan of Bach, and particularly with the Well-Tempered Clavier—leviathans wrestling leviathans. Like Kong and the Tyrannosaur, though, it’s less a fight than a carefully-staged dance. Perhaps Bach was as ambiguous a god to Shostakovich as the whale’s vine-skinned skeleton is to Ishmael: it “seemed the cunning weaver,” the “busy,” “unseen weaver-god,” “himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful life, and begat him curly-headed glories.” A moment later, Ishmael will break through the ribs and almost lose himself in the labyrinthine chapel; “naught was there but bones,” he declares, before daring, against the outcries of the priests (“That’s for us!”), to measure it.

Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues run the gamut from the meditative and the never-quite-mournful—there is always a kernel of assertiveness lurking inside them—to the agitated and kaleidoscopic. I love the meticulous attention to structure in building his sonic cathedral, necessarily so different from Bach’s, but just as different, I think, from any modern church or skyscraper. I love its domes and buttresses, its cornices and spires, the whole clear architecture of it, and only wish I could stand back from it far enough to see it all at once, like one can from the carcass of a whale, and to measure it, like Ishmael with his switch. To my ears, it is as little Solzhenitsyn’s cathedral as Stalin’s, probably because one can hear Shostakovich raising the stones himself, rather than finding a ready-made home in God’s, or the State’s. (And if you were looking for a Tyrannosaur here, take your pick: God, the State … though we should perhaps add Capital to the list, and not forget the image of Kong astride the cupola of the Empire State Building. It is in those intensely affecting moments right before he falls that his movements most clearly resemble a dance.)

The lamplight was scattered in the turtlepond. The willows were ransacked by the new cold gales. And if I happened to reach the twelfth fugue, one of several regularly-spaced spires, as I climbed the Great Hill, then no doubt I intended to, or someone intended for me to. I had modified the pace of my walk; I had come across a propitiously downed tree. At the top of the Hill I cut across the grass to the flat schist outcrop at its center, another peak among many. Only to me, this evening, it was the crest of leviathan; I could sit on its rocky brow like a leviathanic thought, and say, Here is where the music has brought me; no further. For the Shostakovich—or maybe the Shostakovich post-Kong and dead blue whales—makes me think about what music can and cannot do, what its limitations are, where its natural boundaries lie, to what heights it can climb in its desire for the infinite. Anyway, it was a nice place to finish listening to the wild peasant leaps and washboard chromaticisms of twentieth-century Russia, and to intuit for a moment that there is order, maybe inexplicable, but not necessarily oppressive, that emanates like a light from within.