Tag Archives: classical

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.

On Bands, Very Large and Very Small

In the Joshua Redman chapter of his lovely recent book The Jazz Ear, Ben Ratliff—apparently paraphrasing Redman—writes, “Great bands, more than great individuals, make jazz matter in the larger culture” (135). Redman argues that Coltrane’s quartet functioned as a unit and a whole, rather than as a platform for the leader (Sonny Rollins is the foil here). “I think the most interesting jazz these days doesn’t take the form of a soloist backed by accompanists,” he says; “it takes the form of a group interacting, improvising together” (136). Ratliff believes this attitude extends beyond Redman, to “many musicians of Redman’s generation … [whose] Rosetta stones are bands, not individuals.” Interestingly, the bands Ratliff goes on to list are Miles Davis’s, Bill Evans’s, and Ornette Coleman’s from the ‘60s, and Keith Jarrett’s from the ‘70s—this though Redman’s original list included Tortoise and Led Zeppelin. (That’s the gambit of The Jazz Ear, by the way: Ratliff asked a bunch of musicians to pick pieces of music they wanted to talk about, and then interviewed them while and after listening.)

Born in 1968, Redman is just a year older than me; I am “the broader culture” for which the Coltrane quartet “matters.” So Redman’s comment, and Ratliff’s gloss, got me thinking about the special resonance bands have, not just for musicians, but for listeners of my generation.

There are a couple of contemporary jazz bands (Masada and The Vandermark 5) that I love unreasonably. I think this is so because they act as surrogates for those rock bands I once loved unreasonably, their logos etched across my cortex. If you were to take one of those porcelain phrenology heads and substitute ANGER and CREATIVITY with IRON MAIDEN and PINK FLOYD, you’d have a pretty good representation of my one-time mental life. There is an element of nostalgia at work here, of course: my taste may have matured in fits and starts, but I still carry along the residue of a desire; and, since it seems harder and harder to cathect rock bands with anything like the same intensity I used to (though with a few I’ve come close), the old energy, which I imagine must be conserved, is transferred to other genres.

I don’t say this to disparage the music or musicianship of either Masada or the V5. Both bands beautifully embody Redman’s concept of “a group interacting, improvising together.” I’m trying to identify something in excess of the music—a supplement, an aura; an ethos that coheres as a sound. In this respect, it’s not just the gestalt idea that the sum of the playing is more than its parts. That is true of any successful ensemble. Rather, the charisma of the band radiates at once from a persona or identity created by its distinctive, collective voice, and from the contributions of each of its members, in whose individual identities the persona remains intact and present. This persona is eminently marketable, and circulates as much in images, concepts, narratives, etc. as in sounds. It is most marketable, for reasons suggested above, to listeners of my generation; and above all, to male listeners. I’m not sure why; all that shared sweat and camaraderie, I guess. Life as one long Howard Hawks war picture.

It’s not just jazz bands. I came to string quartets on my own, in my twenties, my parents’ taste being focused around piano, orchestra, and combinations thereof. Can I discount the impact of my generation’s popular music on my gravitating toward the chamber ensemble? Do I really need the Kronos Quartet to play Metallica and Meshuggah for me to figure this out? Why else would I be able to name every member of the Emerson Quartet? Do you think they’d hire me to do their logo?

As the cult of the soloist gives way to the dynamic of the group—at least at this point on the helix of cultural history—I can’t help but wonder if the big band, with its greater focus on composition and arrangement, and its often tightly-controlled and thoughtfully-ornamented circumstances for improvisation (I am thinking of Maria Schneider’s comments here, in another chapter of The Jazz Ear), is also experiencing a resurgence.

And then can the orchestra, that nineteenth-century musical equivalent of the jumbo jet, be far behind?

For my part, I can’t imagine it. Excepting the orchestral works with which I bonded in my teens—the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, the tone poems of Richard Strauss, a number of piano concertos, a handful of other pieces—I find it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief before the orchestra. I said something in a previous post about a culture of distrust, and I can’t claim to be immune from it. Why belabor with a string section what can be said by a single violin? The orchestra’s size and grandeur seem unsuited to audiences today. Spectacle has moved to the arena and the cinema—and the orchestra with it, to the limbo of film scores and playing backup for heavy-rock ballads. If I ever get around to exploring the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, and Shostakovitch, it will be for my own edification … which is another way of saying that I don’t expect to fall in love. (But I’m happy to be surprised.)

Undiscovered string quartets, on the other hand, retain the potential to move me greatly, both intellectually and emotionally. Again, there is an element of emotional memory at work here that can’t be discounted. To my ear, though, quartets and similar-sized groups (octets are pushing it) work with a manageable number of voices, timbres and rhythms for my ear to parse. As with the band, I can simultaneously appreciate both the discrete threads and the fabric. And to the whole can be assigned an identity that is neither individual (soloist, conductor, or bandleader) nor a faceless mass (the collective of the orchestra).

Maybe it’s an issue of the performance ethic, too. Interaction among members of an orchestra is always filtered through the conductor, many of whom have reputations for being disciplinarians. (The same is true of big band leaders.) My impression is that the history of the orchestra is as rife with mutinies and desertions as naval history. According to a trombonist friend, orchestra positions have a job satisfaction rating on a par with working at a toll booth. Last year when I was in Houston visiting family, the orchestra was out on strike. True, both an orchestra and a quartet have their first violin, but their jobs aren’t really comparable. An orchestra’s first violin seems like a bureaucratic post. Meanwhile, if you’re the Emerson quartet, you can always trade first fiddle down the middle: three Bartok quartets for Drucker, three for Selzer.

Then again, maybe it’s just that my ear has been ruined by digital recording. The warm distortions of vinyl always helped the orchestra’s sound cohere into a mass; and it was the mass, not the individual voices, that made the orchestra compelling.

Sometimes I imagine the string quartet like the first mammals in those Charles Knight paintings of prehistoric life, when the paradigm that dinosaurs died of their own lumbering ineptitude still held sway. Small, supple, adaptable little critters, emerging from behind the stumps and grasses, ready to lay claim to their evolutionary title. Maybe Disney got it right, in Fantasia, when they made of The Rite of Spring the dinosaurs’ death-march. It was an image of the age of the orchestra coming to a close.


If I had to hazard a guess as to what was the musician, ensemble, or band I’d seen live more than any other, it would probably be Maurizio Pollini. The first time I saw him I was in my early teens, and I’ve repeated the experience maybe thirty times since. I know this is a number more commonly associated with rock bands, like The Dead and The Who, but it does make some sense: reunion tours notwithstanding, most rock bands don’t have this sort of longevity; classical and jazz musicians are more likely to age with you (plus the jazz musicians, when they’re local, are playing around town all the time). I saw Pollini play the complete Beethoven cycle in the late ‘80s, and got stage seats in the late ‘90s when the regular auditorium was sold out. There are some pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy I’ve probably seen him play a dozen times. If for whatever reason a year goes by without his coming to Carnegie Hall, I feel like I’ve skipped a season.

This year promised to be a treat: a series of three recitals, all of them all-Chopin. I bought tickets for all three, and then promptly missed the first during a blizzard of grading. It made me that much more eager for the second, which was last weekend, and the third, which, as I post this, is later today.

Among Pollini’s many gifts, perhaps the chief one—particularly for a pianist who specializes in that instrument’s romantic literature—is his ability to play commandingly at both ends of the dynamic range, from quiet passages of great expressive subtlety to tempestuous, often technically brilliant outbursts. It may just be my aesthetic, but the second seems the rarer gift. Playing the climactic moments of the great Beethoven sonatas (for example) convincingly, in such a way that the listener (at least this one, at least occasionally) is transported by the sublimity of the music, seems to me the true test of romantic pianism. It is in just such moments that many of even the greatest pianists fall short. Maybe it’s the dread of sentiment, or ridicule. (Emmanuel Ax to a student in a master’s class, regarding Brahms: “I want you to play faster and louder.” Chuckles from the audience, but hell, that’s the way I want my Brahms, too; and if you don’t give it to me that way, you might as well go play Haydn.) In fact, one of the things that has most impressed me about Leif Ove Andsnes (of the younger generation of top-notch pianists) is just this confidence at the all-guns-blazing end of the dynamic range.

One other thing about Pollini: he is as close to technically flawless as seems humanly possible. One can’t help but get used to such perfection … and to come to expect it.

Last weekend’s was a lovely program: two nocturnes, two polonaises, four mazurkas, the second ballad, the second sonata, and the opus 49 fantasy. But with the exception of the ballad and parts of the sonata, the execution fell well short of my expectations. Had it been only the fantasy (a piece I’ve always had trouble with, and hence am perfectly willing to blame Chopin for …!) and the occasional missed note, I might not have been bothered enough to write. But my disappointment was general, and seemed to arise from every facet of his playing. A nocturne, for example, should be easy to fall in love with. Just last year he played one as an encore, after a program of breathlessly-executed Beethoven, and my partner and I agreed that it was the finest thing he played that whole evening. So delicate. But on this night the nocturnes did not seduce me; the high notes in particular sounded strident. As for the sonata, the bells of the funeral march were muted—hardly bells at all—while the last movement, which on Pollini’s recording is barely audible, eerily affectless, and blisteringly fast, an undertow of notes, notes, notes, like some dark thought tormenting you, was muddled by dynamics that diminished the overall effect. The encore—the second scherzo—only sedimented my feelings about the whole recital. That technically daunting passage bridging back into the piece’s “A” section was almost painful to listen to.

Pollini, off? Surely it was a sign the end is nigh. I remembered the recent spate of earthquakes, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, the oil spill in the Gulf. Faiths would crumble, relationships end, distraught listeners leap from the balconies …

Or perhaps not. Nobody seemed to notice; the applause was general, thunderous; apparently the heavens don’t fall for such a trifle, as Conrad so aptly put it.

To be honest, by the end I wanted the audience to stop applauding. They’d never seemed so sadistic, or the pianist so much a gladiator, helpless but to engage in combat, now not with the music, but with his own body. I’d seen him play that scherzo before as an encore, obviously exhausted. But this seemed like more than mere exhaustion. And to think he could have come out and played a nocturne. I’ve seen him shrug before sitting down to play an encore, too, as if to say, What the hell. But there was no shrugging last weekend. It was as though he realized that he had no choice, that he was chained to that piano, slave to whipping-post.


During the concert, as my disappointment grew, my mind wandered from the music, and I started thinking about the piano’s role in our culture, and about what the public expects of its classical pianists generally, and Pollini specifically. Robert Walser traces the piano’s role as “music’s central vehicle for heroic individualism” back to Franz Lizst’s “invention” of the solo recital in 1839. Little seems to have changed since then, at least in terms of what we desire from our pianists: the incarnation of that heroic ideal, a musical athleticism that we don’t expect even from other classical performers. Not for nothing Chopin was portrayed by a barrel-chested Cornel Wilde in 1945’s A Song to Remember: the thirtysomething dandy already dying of tuberculosis must be dashing and exuberant, and built like Michael Phelps, at least for Hollywood. Today, the classical music industry seems to churn out hot young pianists as fast as supermodels, all bemedaled from this or that international competition. What happens to them as they grow old, or obese, or infirm—that is, as the body interposes itself between the music and the heroic spirit? Do they really age with us, as I said earlier, or are they turned out to pasture?

The above is not true of all pianists. Alfred Brendel, for example, crafted a very different persona for himself, a sort of living New Yorker caricature: bashful, introspective, erudite. (None of this is meant as a criticism of his playing, which I admire.) But Pollini has always seemed to be the poster-boy for romantic pianism. And he has retained this persona as his hair has grown whiter with each passing year.

I’m wondering, then, if what I witnessed last weekend was the passing on of the younger pianist, and if it is a transition that Pollini has not yet fully embraced, or does not quite yet know how to make, or, perhaps, is as yet unwilling to. I’m wondering, that is, if Pollini still wants to be the great athlete of the piano, even as his overwhelming technical facility begins to fail him. Because only an athlete could play the second scherzo for an encore. And last weekend, the athlete stumbled. Thinking back, I’m wondering if the desperate speed at which he played the Beethoven sonatas last year, his near-Puritanical distaste for rests, was a harbinger of this year’s recitals. And I can’t help but remember tubercular Tristram’s desperate, sentimental journey through France in Book VII of Tristram Shandy, fleeing Death and dancing mad circles with peasant girls; and the aging protagonist of John Cheever’s story “O Youth and Beauty!” assembling the furniture around the living room to run the hurdles one last time, about to be shot dead by his long-suffering wife.

All this is not to say that Pollini is a virtuouso without the depth of spirit to interpret these works. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pollini is a brilliant, even generous, interpreter. Today, we tend to be suspicious of virtuosity, as if any such display were necessarily emotionally bankrupt. It’s a combined product, I would guess, of the cult of authenticity and the culture of distrust. But like anything, great technique is as full or empty as the uses the artist puts it to. Virtuosity and affect aren’t so easily extricable from one another as seems to be imagined. Anyway, what was remarkable about this Pollini recital was the way in which a slight shift in the pianist’s ability to phrase and articulate and ornament pulled the curtain aside on the wizard, and all the gorgeous effects on which our emotional engagement with the music depends, and which themselves depend so much on coloring and sustain and a jumbling of musical phrases into a warm, distorted whole, suddenly vanish before our ears.

Finally, an irony to ponder. What does it mean for the music of a terminally ill thirty-five-year-old to be routinely performed by robust men and women of twice that age? Do the inverted ratios of health and age lead performers to perennially miss something in Chopin’s music?

Addendum. While I was in line for the bathroom at today’s third and final recital, I overheard an older gentleman commenting on the previous recital. He was disappointed, too, and when he saw me nodding vigorously, we fell to talking. It turns out that Pollini had been ill, though I’m not sure how he found this out. He thought they should have canceled or postponed that concert, and I agreed. Anyway, I’m just pleased that the infirmity was only temporary. The berceuse today was a gem—how can anyone’s right hand can get those sounds out of a piano? It was also great to hear him back in form for the Bm sonata, a piece which, like Pollini, grows with me. May he continue to run those hurdles for many years to come, Death nipping at his heels the whole way.

And still the nagging question: Why the second scherzo for an encore, if he was indeed sick? And so all the musings about sadism and aging romantic bodies and musical athleticism continue …

J.S. Bach: The English Suites

glenn-gould-canadian-pianistWhat struck me listening to the English Suites this time around (the Glenn Gould recording from 1977) is how different they are from each other. Each has its own personality. The second, for example, is expansive and refined, the first with such a long, imposing prelude, culminating in at once the most soaring and static (cathedral-like?) of gigues.* The third is the polar opposite of the second: it is hardly adorned, building patiently on its musical phrases, giving the performer time to settle them at his leisure. The fourth is expansive like the second, but of a romantic mood. The fifth sounds almost impossibly modern. I don’t know why it strikes me this way; Bach was hardly a stranger to chromaticism. As for the sixth, where to begin? At the end, maybe. The gigue is haunting. But here, I particularly appreciate the playful gavotte that directly precedes it: it sounds like children marching.

I first heard these suites, together with the French ones, on tapes a friend of my father’s made for him. I was probably 14 at the time and, an inveterate mixed-tape-maker of rock songs, I quickly copied my favorite sections from a variety of suites together on one side of a cassette; the other side had the first, fifth and sixth piano sonatas by Beethoven (performed by Wilhelm Backhaus), I think, which I had taped from my father’s records; and they, together with a couple of other cassettes of Chopin and Beethoven, and the pieces my father practiced nightly, constituted the core of my identification with classical music when I was a teenager. I made several other tapes, all from my parents’ records, but these first few pieces remain mine in a way nothing has since. The suites were thus all jumbled together and incomplete. So when I listen to them now, it is the suites themselves that seem all mixed up; and whenever I run into an old friend—the bourees of Suite #2, the gavottes of Suite #3—I ask, “What on earth is this doing here?” They still seem more natural where they appear on my old mixed tape than in their “proper” place in the middle of a suite. I like the rhythm and the tension this creates in listening to a suite as a whole, each section more or less familiar, more or less loved.

I should say something about Gould’s playing, for he is no doubt partly responsible for making each suite so distinct (and yet all of them together so distinctively Gould). I have another recording of the suites by Andras Schiff, another pianist I greatly admire, from about 10 years later. I have actually listened to the Schiff recording more, simply because I have so much Bach by Gould that I haven’t bothered to load Gould’s English suites onto my computer yet.** I was struck by the difference. Perhaps Schiff is a bit too high, a bit too serious, for Bach. (He certainly came across that way in the one master’s class I had a chance to see him teach.) Gould is so much more playful, intimate, even irreverent. He seems to dare to do with Bach what the composer might have done himself. I hope that doesn’t sound too theologically author-enamored. But no one else could play the children’s crusade of the sixth suite with those careless near-glissandos and pauses. Nor does he need to overemphasize the low trills and descending arpeggios of the gigue to make it truly haunting. I don’t think this is simply a matter of emotional memory or musical imprinting, either—that is, of the link between my discovery of classical music as a teenager (in the sense of finding a canon of pieces that spoke to me) and my association, surely a common one, of Bach with Gould.

* I can remember the first time I “heard” this gigue, really heard it, driving down old Route 24 through Chatham, New Jersey, onto an exit ramp by the Short Hills mall. Not the most propitious setting for a musical moment of being. But then I’m always unprepared for them; in fact, surprise seems to be an important factor, as a friend of mine, a fiction writer, noticed about similar moments in stories. My musical life is punctuated by listenings which, for whatever reason, transcend all previous and color all subsequent ones. I don’t imagine I’m alone in this.

** As a New Yorker, I do a lot of my listening while walking, and given the limited amount of space on my iPod, I rarely have more than a suite on there at a time, which means I rarely listen to them as a set … yet another example of the way the technology of reproduction affects how we appreciate and understand music.