Tag Archives: piano

Reflections of Orrin

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Among the many small things I have to be thankful for (amid the many large things that I curse) is having had the opportunity to listen to Orrin Evans’s Flip the Script (2012) before the hearing loss in my left ear migrated to my right and absconded with my beloved piano. The album was a best-of-the-year pick in the New York City Jazz Record that a few-minute YouTube clip was enough to sell me on; I picked it up at Chicago’s envy-inspiring Jazz Record Mart, on a perfect too-cold June afternoon, on stopover between overnight legs on Amtrak. (Lake Michigan was restless as the ocean; the Blackhawks scored when I stopped for a beer: perfect.) I wouldn’t get around to hearing it until a couple of weeks later, driving around upstate New York, each successive track convincing me that there isn’t a better jazz pianist working today, certainly no one who can do as much with taking classic forms and turning them, as the title suggests, on their heads. I’m thankful, too, that I got to hear Evans once live when I could still more or less hear the actual notes he was playing, rather than the neighboring tones my brain decides to substitute, in its desperation to make sense of the data; and that I got to see Evans again, at least, even though pretty much everything he played sounded out of tune to me.

1

At the Vanguard, early August. The Steve Wilson quartet—Wilson on alto and soprano, Bill Stewart on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass. I’d caught the train down from the gardens of the Union Settlement Association, East Harlem, where the ever-impressive Sam Newsome had done a spot-on impression of Coltrane—split tones, circular breathing, “sheets of sound,” the whole nine yards—and things with Monk and to Monk that would have made Monk stop spinning. Between milking the short, edifying set in Harlem and grabbing a coffee on my way to the Vanguard, I barely made the first set. The lights went down just as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The club was packed. The hostess asked me softly if I’d prefer to sit right up next to the piano or in the back. My hesitation must have expressed that neither option was particularly desirable. I was actually contemplating bumming around the Village for a while and coming back for the 10:30.

Then she said, “Follow me. I have a nice seat for you upstairs.”

How could I not? The lights had just gone down, and the hostess’s voice had all the seduction of servile authority. I followed her up the stairs on the right side of the bandstand, to the corridor of tables that leads smack into the drum kit. Maybe she was in touch with some higher being who knew what was in store for me, who had said to her, “Give him a good seat. After tonight, he’s fucked.” Or maybe she’d mistaken me for some critic or other; I have a friend who always gets free food at the Standard, and he thinks that’s why. (I did pull out my notebook after the set and write down some observations, just to reinforce the potential misimpression—not that I wouldn’t have done so anyway, just under a streetlamp in Abingdon Square instead of at the club.) Whatever the reason, she sent some poor tourist back to the masses huddled on the couches across the aisle, and sat me alone at the first table on the left.

It was indeed a good seat. It wasn’t just the clear visibility of all the band members, piano, sax and bass to the left of the pillar rising up from the bannister at the end of the landing, drums to the right. For you see, on the wall to Evans’s left was a black-and-white photo of Tommy Flanagan. In the photo, Flanagan sits in profile, facing the same direction as Evans. It’s a very dark photo, and Flanagan wears black, so that the only things you can really see are his face, head tilted back, glasses lit, and the long necklace he is wearing, and his hands on the keys of the keyboard. It’s dark like those Roy DeCarava pictures, where black musicians half-dissolve into the shadows of the music’s mythological urbanness: the deep chiaroscuro of the city, the underworlds of speakeasies, that whole hazy Brassai aesthetic. They are pictures that seem to rewrite the very idea of blackness. Flanagan, after all, is the whitest thing in this photograph.

The remarkable thing was not that Evans played next to a photo of Flanagan, a kind of mise-en-abyme of the pianist, as though we might expect to see a picture of a pianist (Mary Lou Williams? Fats Waller? Flanagan himself?) in the picture, behind Flanagan. It was that, from this very good seat the hostess had secured for me, Evans was reflected in the Flanagan photo, so that I could see the ghostly image of his face, his newsboy’s cap, in the abyss of Flanagan’s turtleneck. Even more suggestive, the image was clearer when Wilson, who stood just to the right of the keyboard, stepped up to solo. Wilson wore a white shirt, and the white was clearly visible in the blackness of the turtleneck, framing Evans with a sort of halo, each musician nested inside the other, generation by receding generation, like Russian dolls. It wasn’t Evans, then, playing under the watchful eye of the spirit of Flanagan, gone from us so recently, present only as an image on the wall (or a disc), but rather the image of the living Evans that haunted Flanagan, head ducking and bobbing to the funkiness inside Flanagan, like an infant kicking in Flanagan’s belly. Like Evans was a space in Flanagan he filled. I suppose this means that Flanagan, like all great musicians, created a framework of ideas, and that all such frameworks create new spaces for other musicians to fill—make those spaces audible, because such spaces don’t exist until they have been given shape by someone’s music. And Evans is just that sort of player, not radically extending the vocabulary of the music, but rather finding those spaces inside blues and funk and bop to re-create idiomatically.

2

Smalls, around the corner, less than a month later. On any other night I’d have come here to see Donny McCaslin, the leader, but this night I came to see Evans. I can hear McCaslin; the tone gets dirty, doubled over part of the tenor’s range, but the actual notes still pierce through. Not so with piano, except at the extremes of its range. So I am here to listen to Donny, and to Billy Drummond, a Shandyesque name if ever there was one, but to watch Evans.

Smalls, as you may remember if you have ever been there, has a mirror hanging above and to the left of the keyboard, angled down, so that you can see the pianist’s hands from most of the ten rows of chairs, and a second mirror behind the drum kit, for an analogous reason. I have never asked for pink champagne on ice. Should I? A couple of times someone knocked the mirror inadvertently, once as they were bringing out an extra music stand out from the back, and the keyboard bobbed and rocked like a canoe slightly disturbed by another’s wake. In the mirror, the hands go the opposite way, high keys to the left of the phantom hands. It’s a bit like watching other dancers in the mirror of a studio, when you’re trying not to watch yourself.

When Evans found his groove, his neck would start to move, his hands to obey an interior rhythm, he would start to flash smiles across at Drummond. By watching those Sidney Poitier-beautiful hands in the mirror, and the pigeon-jut of the neck, the hop and roll of his shoulders as he began to fully inhabit the music, I guess I hoped that something of what I couldn’t hear would be translated to me directly, bodily. And maybe it was, and always is, when one is enveloped by such a presence. When McCaslin gets going, the ideas, those big rhythmic structures like the outlines of skyscrapers, flood and fill his horn; you feel the inspiration pouring out rather than just hearing it. The music is as much a personality as a series of pitches. And I think that as a player, Evans is enough like McCaslin—a similar love of pattern and repetition—that I could just imagine hearing Evans in the shadow of McCaslin’s tenor.

Drummond ended his last solo without his drums, waving his sticks across the edges of his cymbals, forehand and backhand, like a wizard with two wands. Thirty-two perfect chimes, and then the ending chorus.

Little things. Try to remember to be thankful for little things.

*

It used to be that the words were never quite enough to reach the music, and so I reveled in them, used them to cut out a sort of silhouette or stencil that would give shape to the music in the reader’s mind, but which was only ever the contours of a hole, an absence I could not fill. It was one way to adapt to the condition of being damned. But I did not truly understand the meaning of damned until, for some instruments, at certain pitches, even the notes were withheld from me. Now the words can no longer pretend to be anything other than what they are, to speak any reality or have any deep and actual connection to the notes they aspire to, like fish to the air, like the circle to the sphere. I cannot tap a wand on them and, presto, make them leap off the page. I can only dig deeper with them, which means into them, like a prisoner left to excavate his own pen.

I’ve written before, or at least suggested, that there is a moment in all music writing when the words have to leave the music behind, to acknowledge their separateness, the void in which they exist. This is the moment that some musicians seem to despise or resent: when the words no longer become “really about” the music, but only about themselves. (You know the criticisms: self-indulgent, pseudo-poetic, etc.) It is the point that every piece of writing about music must reach, if it is to be successful. I think it is despised and resented, too, because it is the moment when the writer sneaks around behind the music and, words like a flashlight, lifts up the music’s skirts. How could I not be punished for such a transgressive thought, and for such hubris? You say you can do without the music. Well, there you are. Words for you. Nothing but words.

When music becomes no more than words, then damned you are, damned, and damned utterly.

The Last Waltzes

Three spring piano recitals and a note on the Cliburn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

Pop!

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Is Solid

      It’s a Sunday afternoon in August, and I’m at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, to hear the Kazzrie Jaxen quartet. I’m here because Kazzrie is here, and because my neighbor, a pianist and friend of Kazzrie’s, invited me. In a broader sense, I’m here because I am new to the peaceable kingdoms of the Hudson Valley, and I am still trying to find my moorings amid the upstate exiles. In the City you get used to the weight of people, smog, and noise. It settles on you, over time. Here, I’m like a man walking on the moon: every step threatens to catapult me into space, and I look around in vain for someone or something to hold me down.

The Howland Center is a tall, airy space with a churchy feel. It used to be the town library, until 1976, when the collection outgrew its confines, the books were (re)moved, and the building joined the National Historical Registry. The shelves have been taken down, but the cabinets remain, the numbers still stenciled on them, and black and white pictures of the town-as-it-was hang above the spaces where the books used to be. Instead of rectangular reading tables and card catalogs, there are round folding four-tops covered with plastic. There is fruit, cheese, wine, brownies, kids. A metal balcony encircles the room ten feet above, with more empty numbered cabinets along the walls and four lights suspended from the grillwork. A big grandfather clock, its brass, lute-shaped pendulum stilled, fails to measure the time.

The musicians put their things on top of the cabinets: instrument cases, a red fabric cooler, a few bottles of water. Jaxen, who plays piano, stops by our table to say a brief, warm hello. She is blond, nimble, radiant. Sinewy, though there is something wispy about her, too. Charlie Krachy, standing a few feet behind her with his tenor already hanging from his neck, is grey, plodding, down to earth—her complement in every way. Together with the rest of the band—Don Messina on bass, Bill Chattin on drums—Charlie will spend the next hour holding on to the sleeves of Kazzrie’s blouse and the hem of Kazzrie’s skirt, as she refuses to let that great ballast of the instrument world hold her down, and threatens to float up and away, like one of those newlyweds in a Chagall painting.

*

I had the chance to hear Kazzrie only once before, in an apartment in Morningside, on a Sunday afternoon not so different from this one. The musicians who played that day, and the vast majority of those in the audience, were part of a musical collective that seems to have grown up around the pianist and educator Connie Crothers. It was a trio of violin, piano and clarinet, playing freely improvised music. In such a setting, there is no agreement about structure or melody beforehand, and there are no standards, at least in the jazz sense of that term. Somebody starts to blow, or strum, or pluck, or whatever, and the musicians go wherever the spirit of the moment takes them, and the jam lasts as long as that spirit inhabits them. Then they pause, and start again. It is remarkably beautiful to watch as well as to listen to.

When the “set” was over, there was a break to eat and drink and chat. Then the real jam began, real because it was yet more free. Different people got up to play as the mood struck them, like Quakers moved to speak. Maybe what was most beautiful was the humility with which playing was approached. There was not that sense you sometimes gets at late-night jams, where one player after another wants to muscle in, take the limelight for a few bars, be heard. Here, everybody knew everybody else, or almost, and pretty much everybody had played together at one time or another. There was much hesitation and politeness; a smile and nod across the room, like you might ask a stranger to dance; the sudden leaping out of a chair, because nobody else had; the desire to share something. Of course, almost everybody there was a musician, they had all brought their instruments with them, or just themselves. It was even a little eerie to find that everyone else in the room was touched with the capacity to create ex nihilo, as much as it would be to find that they could bend spoons without touching them, or read each other’s minds. And there was the feeling that they all know each other on a level more intimate than I could ever know them, or perhaps anyone; and this produced a combination of admiration, envy, and unease. If this were a Polanski movie, I thought, they would be a coven. I even began to suspect that the reason each of them could improvise in this way must have something to do with the rest of them being present; that they create a sort of magic circle in which such things can happen. That they were all holding the edge of an invisible net, which they cast collectively into the air, to catch the bits of melodies floating around like pollen. As for the music, it is as ephemeral as the dappled bit of sunlight I noticed falling on the carpet when I glanced toward the window late that afternoon; it is music of that Sunday, and no other. One is not leaving a legacy, but living a moment. And so it is all the more necessary just to play. Maybe the feeling of humility comes partly from this.

Kazzrie was not part of the original trio that day. She flitted up to the piano during the jam two or three times, once dragging my neighbor along with her for a duet at the same keyboard. I remember the immense sound she got out of that piano, for such a wisp of person. But then there was a special radiance about her, an energy far greater than her size. Walking home with my neighbor after the gig, I was reluctant to single out any one performance, the whole afternoon had been so enjoyable, the collective musicianship so impressive. We have a running joke between us, my neighbor and I. Both of us have had the experience of sharing music we love with friends, only to be disappointed by a lukewarm or patronizing response. So now, when we talk about music, no matter how much we like something, all we will ever commit to saying is that it is interesting. “Was it interesting?” “Oh, yes. Definitely interesting. I have something you might find interesting as well.” “Great, I’d love to hear it. I like interesting music.” In this sort of exchange, you depend on the off smile or wrinkle of an eye to say more than words.

But when we talked about Kazzrie that afternoon, it was in tones of reverent, gushing appreciation. We were suddenly comfortable dropping our masks; something about the music demanded it. It only lasted a few moments. Then we returned to our more generally laconic, dispassionate discussion of music, and then we moved on to other subjects.

*

In a way, the Beacon set was the antithesis of that intimate gathering in Morningside. Before the quartet began, Kazzrie told the audience they were going to evoke the days of Young and Holiday, as well as play some more free improvisation. The set that afternoon was definitely tilted toward the former. The nine or ten songs were all standards, with the free excursions relegated to digressions at the ends of tunes. With the exception of two ballads, and to a lesser extent the songs Kazzrie sang in her pleasant, Holiday-inflected voice (“All of Me” and “I Ain’t Foolin’”), the selections were identically imagined and approached: the same forward momentum, hippity-hop bounce, arrangement, and order of solos. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which appeared early in the set, is such a delicate, haunting tune; I’ve always thought it carried faint suggestions of conspiracy, of betrayal. But the band played it with the same foot-tapping energy as they did everything else. This wasn’t so much sunup as high noon; the melody lost all shadow.

Was it the audience? I wondered. From the Q&A after the set, it was clear that at least a few people there were new to jazz. Maybe the quartet was afraid of alienating them.

I don’t think so.* While Charlie and the rest of the band did indeed evoke the days of Holiday and Young—and Young is not a bad touchstone for Charlie’s warm, sumptuous tone and wonderful sense of melody, both of which really shone on the ballads, and which the Howland space served to amplify—Kazzrie, singing excepted, did not. Something I learned from one of my jazz guitar teachers many years ago: you can swing your way through just about anything. (He demonstrated this by playing an uptempo solo with as many “wrong” notes as he could squeeze in.) In the middle of a heavy swing, an excursion into dissonance or even sheer noise is passed over almost unnoticed by many listeners—even by educated listeners who have not had much exposure to jazz. A steady rhythm allows us to box in and measure such transgressions; it reinforces the sense that they are temporary, regulated. A good beat can square even the most crooked line. The early free jazz players knew this—compare early Dolphy records to Out to Lunch, or Cecil Taylor’s Love for Sale and Conquistador!, or Coleman’s Free Jazz to AACM records from the mid ‘60s. For the average listener, there is something much more transgressive about the bassist and drummer dismounting and tramping off into the meadows to screw around than in even the most outlandish melodies or harmonies. It is the difference between walking into a room and frowning at the décor, and having the rug pulled out from under you.

It wasn’t just Holiday and Young, then, but early Cecil Taylor, that was evoked in me: that time in Taylor’s career when the piano worked like so many IEDs, blasting the rest of the band, and the whole musical experience, off kilter—“Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” indeed. Like my jazz guitar teacher, Kazzrie could swing when she wanted to, but delighted in getting the notes all wrong; and, like Taylor, comping or soloing, she delighted in throwing rhythmic and harmonic curve balls while the rest of the band swung away, balls that (I have the feeling) whizzed right by many of the foot-tappers in the audience.

If Charlie’s big, huggable sound was all about pleasure, Kazzrie’s was bliss. There was something almost haughty about her, sitting sidesaddle at the piano, her shoulders hunching and relaxing, her mouth occasionally moving. She is almost too big a presence; she is swept away from the moment she sits down. And the way she smiled at that keyboard! Yet, I never got the sense, as is sometimes the case when such different musicians sit in together, that she was off in her own world. Her desire to float did not mean she was leaving the band, but rather that she was finding her own ways to approach them, and the music (cf. her bizarre substitutions on “All the Things You Are”). Comping, she was always listening, prompting, teasing the other players—particularly Charlie, whom she spent the hour scampering after while he soloed, chasing up and down scales and throwing pie-in-the-face chords at. And didn’t Charlie take it all not only in good humor, but with more than a little love and respect? For he never knew, when she went to the top of the keyboard, whether she was going to splash around in the shallow pool of those high keys, or turn them into harp-strings, purling around his tenor. And if she went to the bottom, he didn’t know if those octave runs up from the rumbling depths of the keyboard were going to sound like a Chopin etude or a boogie-woogie … with a dash of Richard Strauss’s bass strings thrown in. She might start a chorus with a single note, and slowly build outwards into a thicket of chord, modifying the rhythm as she went, until Charlie’s tenor, caught up in that beautiful dream, had to hack its way out of the morass of harmony. And then she might climb the keyboard with that same idea, maybe using it to thread her way into a solo, holding onto the tatters of the original idea to create seams. For there was always continuity, the remarkable sense that the concepts on this wide, weird palette come to her fully-formed. There is little, I imagine, she can’t do with a piano, little to which she can’t make it bend, like those spoons, back in that apartment in Morningside.

Did Kazzrie lie to us? Maybe a little. Maybe unintentionally. Maybe just not the whole truth. There was that bit of Holiday in her voice, and Young in Charlie’s horn. And she did say they were going to go a bit … out. Only she was never in. And so there was a subversive air to the whole performance, as if she wanted to plant bad seeds in this green audience by smuggling all that fabulous chaos and dissonance into a straight, sincere, swinging jazz set, smiling the whole way through, as if to say, “Who, me? I didn’t do it!” My guitar teacher warned me about people like you, lady. She was, finally, impossible to resist: she is so sunny and untroubled, so goddamn sure of herself, so certain that whatever she plays is going to win you over, so poised, and so clearly transported by the joy of making music, that if you were to tell her that her playing was, well, a little unorthodox, she would look at you like you were crazy.

*

It’s the same story as everywhere else. They used to make things here. Things you could touch. Hats, apparently. Lots of hats. The factories closed down in the ‘70s, right when they were moving all those books. Now they’re lofts, and the library is a façade. It’s all widgets and MacGuffins. When this sort of thing happened in SoHo, and Williamsburg, at least there was the rest of the City to ground them, like stones around a hot-air balloon. I mean, some neighborhoods still have metal trash cans, and people live in the buildings where they were born and raised. Or they come from faraway lands to squat, old new people without a pot to piss in, as they say. But here? They’re building a hotel and conference center on the river. Same as everywhere. Beacon just did it better, stronger, faster. Dia. Noche.

In the bathroom of this library without books, there is a picture of a chicken. Music, echoing in the spaces where books used to be. Presence, filling the space left behind by representation, twice removed. This is what I am thinking, staring at that picture of the chicken hanging over the toilet.

Maybe it was the rest of the band who were living a dream: the quaint beauty of the old country, the last century, jazz as it used to be, when the men worked on the waterfront or in the factories, and many of the women, too, and they met on dancefloors or smoky pubs, when the boom was taking off and the bomb was so real it made every moment precious. Maybe it was Kazzrie, with her big piano and her big sound, and her sound, and her sound that was nothing like theirs, nothing like anything but itself, no matter how much I try to find musical stones to pin it, who was holding the rest of them down; Kazzrie they depended on to stop them from floating away into some dream of a former time that wasn’t coming back. Kazzrie who kept the whole thing anchored in the present, who said, simply, You are here, like those maps in malls and museums. I didn’t have to worry about pictures of chickens or libraries without books, or even the fact that I’d moved so far out that the City was a faint glimmer and tug in space, a picture from Voyager, because I was a satellite of other, nearer bodies, and Kazzrie was here with her big piano to ground me in the living present.

 

* Another reason I don’t think so: I’ve attended other concerts by musicians in the same collective (perhaps not the right word; “New Artists” will do, I guess, because many of them have recorded for the small, independent label of this name) just as standards-driven as this one, and others made up entirely of originals, and yet others tending toward the free improv of that afternoon in Morningside. They are an impressively ecumenical bunch; I never got the impression anyone would get called a fascist for playing the tonic triad. For these musicians, “free improv” does not necessarily mean painting on an exploding canvas. From what I have witnessed, they often seem more interested in finding consonances and erecting structures, however temporary or strange, with dissonance reserved for shade and ornament, like vines over a trestle, than in creating the esctatic maelstroms associated (a little too facilely) with free jazz.

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.

Dreaming American

Independence Day is next week, and the venue—a bar-restaurant with a piano-shaped stage built into one corner, jazz seven nights a week—is done up in stars-and-bars bunting. The food is ethnic, some kind of Mediterranean fusion. A giant clock, the kind you would see in a train station, hangs on one wall, and a giant TV, silent as the clock, hangs over the bar. The Yankees are playing the national pastime-that-was. A third wall is decorated with a rather lurid painting of jazz legends in a jam session, and, on a shelf high above, foot-tall porcelain clowns, each playing a different instrument.

The musicians take turns eating at the single bar seat reserved for staff. The pianist, a young woman of Asian descent, is occupying it when I arrive; the bass player, young, male, African-American, follows her. Scampi. Comped? How much? Half, maybe, the rest paid for out of the tip jar: a fishbowl on a pedestal beside the piano, a few dollar bills floating in it. Too big to carry around soliciting, like they would at Arthur’s Tavern, like they used to at the St. Nick’s Pub.

When the bass player finishes eating, someone on staff is dispatched to find the pianist. Like she’s an errant busboy, smoking weed in the basement. It’s the sort of indignity musicians have suffered since antiquity, beginning with their exile from the Republic.

Why the rush? I’m happy to drink my wine and read about Ed Poe until she’s good and ready. The guy next to me, in the only other occupied seat on the stage-side of the bar, seems content to watch the Yankees. A couple on the other side chats away under the porcelain clowns, and someone else reads the paper. The bartenders, skinny and dark, stand around like coin-operated automatons.

Appear she does, looking slightly flustered, and the other two follow her up onto the stage: the rhythm section, although in a piano trio the distinction is probably meaningless. If there’s any applause, I don’t hear it. No one introduces them, and they don’t introduce themselves. She looks over her shoulder a couple of times while drums and bass fumble with sheet music. The music rack is down, the lid up, the piano turned away from the bar, so that we, the patrons, can see her face, but not her hands.

After a tune or two, I start to wonder what the music is doing here, seven nights a week. Why the stage, the track lighting? Why the baby grand? It’s not a noisy bar, where the music helps create that juke-joint atmosphere, maybe a few people dance, the noise on the bandstand mixing in and out of the noise of conversation, in turn feeding and feeding off the energy of the patrons. At the same time, the music is much too loud and prominent to be a digestif—although, since the main dining room appears to be in the back, the owners might have thought it could serve that function, from a distance. Nor is the place a club-shrine, where arty people go to just listen, silence their cell phones and keep conversation to a minimum. Shoved into a corner, yet thrust up onto a stage; playing against the Yankees, yet loud enough to dissuade conversation: the music seems to have no clearly-defined role.

Maybe enough that it’s here at all. But it does make me wonder what the musicians are playing for, besides tips and a scampi coupon.

Perhaps in response, the band doesn’t talk once during their set. They do no more than sift through sheet music, murmuring. It’s a bit like watching someone sort dirty laundry; I almost feel the need to look away. As for the pianist, the leader—it is her trio; her name is on the bill—she stares straight ahead while she plays, without seeming to look at anything, not even the keys or her own hands. Maybe she’s looking through the open windows and door behind me, at the makeshift terraza on the avenue, at the cars and pedestrians making their way through the breezy late-June evening. Making music out of their moving figures and the City night, dreaming about all these lives separate and distinct from her own, people she won’t ever see again, and how she fits into this inscrutable jigsaw; and when, if ever, she’ll be done paying her dues, make it, play for the tourists; and whether she’ll ever be able to call this place home, and what that will mean when she goes back to Tokyo, or Seoul, or Boston, or Los Angeles, or wherever it is she’s called home up to now.

The guy next to me never takes his eyes off the TV, but his body does rock a little when they play a burner. He applauds politely when the set is over, too; but then somebody has just hit a home run.

At last she does speak. In a thickly-accented English, she introduces her bandmates, herself, holds up her CD with her face on the cover. The drummer is texting. A moment later he goes out front to smoke a cigarette. She, too, disappears again, leaving the CD buried under the scores atop the piano.

I can’t tell you who she sounded like. She sounded like pretty much every dreamer who came to this town before her, and yet like nobody but herself, pitching those few pennies into the wishing-well of improvisation—there are plenty at the bottom of that fishbowl, and plenty more fishbowls like that one. I can’t remember what she played, either. A mix of originals and standards, again, like pretty much everybody else: something people can tap their feet to even if they’re watching the game, nothing too “out,” too corny, too anything.

As for her name, that doesn’t particularly matter either. There are dozens, maybe hundreds like her in this City: graduates of the Berklees, renegades from the Julliards, devotees of that other national pastime, cobbling together their lives on bandstand after bandstand, hawking their CDs wherever they go, playing an always-contemporary music itself cobbled together from a thousand accents, one foot planted firmly in the future, dreaming about a time when they’ll be done paying their dues, the flag will mean what it’s supposed to, and the clowns will climb down off those high shelves and file out the door.

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.

Animistic

Photo by Garrett Bradley

From notes discovered on the last page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Any errors are errors of imagination, and hence not errors at all.

Last Memorial Day weekend I headed down to Alphabet City to hear a solo performance by Jason Moran at A Gathering of Tribes, a gallery-salon on East 3rd Street. A friend of mine in Texas had learned about the show from Moran’s Facebook page—this sort of thing happens more frequently than you might suppose—and forwarded me the link.

Walking down Avenue D that Sunday, with my treasure map cribbed from the internet, I wondered whether Tribes would have AC. It was more like July than May: temperature near a hundred, humidity through the roof. I felt bad for my cats. I felt bad for everybody’s cats.

A few minutes before three I stumbled into the small living room of a second-floor walkup, almost into Moran himself, dapper as ever, in white with his trademark Panama hat. He was chatting with a few people sitting on a big black couch, one an elderly African-American man who appeared to be blind.

So this was Tribes. Fifteen dollars. And would I care to make a donation? People milled in and out of the kitchen (right) and the gallery space (left) set up for the performance. Not an empty seat in this little house. A few of the attendees sat on the sills of the thrown-open windows, and one had even gone so far as to perch on the fire escape. The walls were covered with paintings of what looked like apocalyptic orgies. A decrepit upright piano stood against the gallery’s far wall.

It was hotter upstairs than on the street. The people, of course. Hot doesn’t quite capture it, actually. I had abandoned all pretense of civility, was wiping my face with the belly of my T-shirt, which had taken on a Rorschach-like sweat-blot. But then everyone here shone or dripped; we were collectively melting, like dropped popsicles. Maybe this was the meaning of the phantasmagoria on the walls: we were all melting together, and in better weather would solidify as One.

The smell? A mix of noxious volatiles (paint, crotchsweat) and cigarette smoke. I confess a certain nostalgia for the last of these. I wanted to smoke myself, now that every 7-11 was supposed to carry posters of evil-looking tumors while they pushed Nachos, slushees, hot dogs and other such shit on obese teens. At least, until some clever young soul finds a way to smoke them.

When I was sufficiently dehydrated to have lost hope of survival, Moran squeezed past me, heading for the piano. I imagined his passage was eased by my desiccation; I imagined the sweat pouring out of him like water off a mop put through a roller. He took a seat at the bench, swiveled around to thank the gallery’s owner, and then started to play.

Oh, that piano. Brand Kurtzmann. “Upright” is pushing it. Corpses sit upright, I guess, if they’re shoved up against a wall like that. I expected it to go to pieces the moment he started, like a used car kicked by an overzealous vendor. The front panel was missing, so I could watch the hammers lift and drop with the music. Some of them would stick; I waited for them to bounce back. Some would create a split tone, or make the piano ring like a sitar, or dulcimer. Some were just dead. And so even though Moran played a “regular” piano, it sounded like a prepared one … but an inadvertently, randomly prepared one, the detritus of ages littering the cables, time and wear having done the work that a deliberate artist might do. As though passers-by had left trinkets inside, and taken pieces home as souvenirs. This is all the more wonderful when one considers that the piano is supposed to be the essence of a mathematical, regularized sonority.

There was something right about watching Moran from behind. You never, I realized, see pianists entirely from behind in a concert hall or jazz club. They are at most three-quarters turned. But then you never see pianists playing an “upright.” Here, you could watch his shoulders hunch up, his neck disappear, his hands sprout from his body as they crawled toward either end of the keyboard. He had to swivel on his butt every time he wanted to bow, or turn around entirely to introduce a number, which he did with his hands clasped in his lap.

At one point, Moran claimed to have a Kurtzmann just like this one at home, only in even worse shape, so he was comfortable with the instrument. I admit I found this hard to believe. But what he said directly after made me not particularly care. The piano, he said, was guiding him toward what it wanted him to play.

Anyone who has ever tried to play an instrument will understand this. Every instrument—I don’t mean this in the general but in the particular sense—has a character of its own. Every musician has to develop a relationship with his instrument—has to figure out, as Moran said, what it wants him to play, as much as what he wants from it. To conjure the spirit inhabiting those boards and knobs and strings. To steer it like a creaky ship toward some modicum of controlled expression. All musicianship partakes of this sort of animism; the piano at Tribes just dramatized it.

Moran’s comment changed the way I was listening. At the beginning I had been tempted to take the whole show for charity, or an exercise in postmodern pastiche, or a sort of death-match. It was, in fact, all of the above. A big-name jazz player slumming in the “old” East Village, helping raise funds for an ailing institution; a master pitting his technique against a recalcitrant instrument. Certainly there was no hiding in it. Forget about the warm pedaling that allows notes to melt into one another, the whole piano to seethe like an orchestra, that obscures missed notes or uneven trills in washes of sound. Every flaw was there on display. But what I came to hear, too, was a musician listening to the instrument he played, learning from it, until he started to recognize, for example, where those duds and split tones were—and then he might hit them hard, three, four times in a row, the way Monk will badger a minor second or tritone until we can’t help but admire its ugly beauty.

In this light, the performance started to sound like a belated response to Moran’s 2002 solo recording Modernistic; and the piano took on the decayed beauty of an abandoned factory, or ruined amusement park. Only a haunted one. For the mix of tunes, or rather the mixed-up tunes, came to seem selected by the piano, not the performer. Free jazz melted into stride—Butch Morris to Fats Waller—and then, via obsessive repetition, atomized into something closer to minimalism (cf. Irene Schweitzer). Another piece, reminiscent of one of Satie’s Gymnopédies, scrambled into a blues. Even “Body and Soul,” a Moran favorite, took on new dimensions as it was fractured here and there by notes that sounded alternately like glass, rubber balls, and wood blocks. By then I was thinking, That ballad, yeah, the piano definitely wanted that one. Or maybe my ears were just getting used to the endless clinkers and shimmerers, stickers and duds.

At the end of the first set I took a walk outside to cool off and decide if I had the endurance to go back for the second. The trees were all in blossom, misting me with petals as I walked by. The people had blossomed, too, here in the vegas of Alphabet City. A barbecue in every garden and a party on every streetcorner. Every once in a while a skinny white girl would pass me on a bike. Over on Avenue B, a college student was moving in, her parents helping. Everything she owned seemed to be wrapped in plastic. She looked too young for the neighborhood; she ought to be moving into a dorm somewhere, I thought. But then the entire Village is a dorm. Or a frat house.

Near the end of that first set, Moran had said that Tribes was one of the reasons he still lived in New York. I thought of the woman who had offered me a cup of water as I stood leaning on the doorjamb. Melting and listening. Listening and melting. Occasionally I would look over at the blind man on the couch, who did not move for the entire set. When it ended, he said, “Beautiful.” He said it three more times—beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. There was nothing else anybody could say.

I walked around the circle in Tompkins Square, past the street punks and skaters and the people walking their panting dogs—I felt bad for everybody’s dogs, too—and sat down for a minute on a bench. I scribbled some notes on the back page of my copy of Jane Eyre. Then I remembered the second set and started walking back to Tribes.

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.

Double Time

There were a lot of good excuses to go hear the Fred Hersch trio twice during their recent residency at the Village Vanguard. Here’s mine: I went to the late set on Wednesday, had one glass of wine, and after three tunes pretty much passed out. Even imagining Connie Crothers (whom I spotted sitting up in the VIP section) shrunk to the size of a garden gnome, straddling my neck and boxing my ears, shouting, “Wake up! Wake up!” did me no good.

I rationalized the whole thing beautifully: the oppressive heat, the early-morning workout, the late-afternoon gardening. The wine. I was a victim of circumstance; I deserved to go see Fred Hersch again. In fact, I owed it to Hersch to go again. My conduct at the Vanguard that night had been nothing short of despicable. I had disrespected the man. I mean, it’s not like I started snoring or anything (at least I don’t think so). But you don’t go hear an artist of Hersch’s caliber and spend half the set fighting to stay awake. When it was over, I had the odd feeling that I should go up to him and confess.

On Sunday, devout opportunist that I am, I made sure to do everything right. Light dinner. Early set. And unlike Wednesday, I didn’t make a reservation. In fact, until I walked out of the restaurant, and felt the weather starting to break, the light breeze, and looked up at the trestle of the red train at 125th Street, I wasn’t convinced that I was actually going to go.

It was the trio’s last night, though not their last set—it was the nine instead of the eleven, and only fifteen minutes before the hour by the time I arrived. I was surprised to find the place almost packed; Wednesday the reservation had been unnecessary, but tonight they were putting chairs where there were no tables, seating people in the spaces you usually use to cross your legs.

You’ll say it was just a self-deluded attempt at spontaneity, or the catharsis following expiation, or the sheer fact that I was alert, that made the Sunday-night set not only better than Wednesday’s, but one of those rare birds you only catch a few times a year, and that if you’re lucky.

You would be wrong.

Not to say that all of the above weren’t factors. We have a tendency to undervalue the role of the listener, and automatically attribute a great musical experience solely to the artist, rather than to the confluence of circumstances that drove the two together, musician and listener, down fog-dense alleys of memory and imagination, experience and culture, and into each other’s arms. (Writes the critic, “Rollins was uninspired that night.” Indeed, Mr Critic? Perhaps you were uninspired, and Rollins was just Rollins.)

It’s just that there were so many other indicators. Time, for example. Hersch played barely an hour on Wednesday, twenty minutes longer on Sunday. And when the lights came up, the trio received a standing ovation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a standing ovation at a jazz club. It was the best kind, too, where the crowd rises in a bunch to its feet, like released balloons. A sudden updraft of joy. Even Hersch seemed taken aback, and stayed to play an encore—another rarity at the big clubs, even at the Vanguard, which is still far and away the best of them.

And then I could see it on the faces of the musicians that night, particularly John Hebert on bass. Not that I needed to—like the applause, it was just a confirmation of what I was hearing. They nodded and smiled at each other across the bandstand, and we listened to a good marriage turn into a honeymoon, under the fickle tap of some fairy godmother’s wand.

Maybe it was because they’d been playing together all week, and we were hearing the fruits of this, a miraculous collusion of wills.

Maybe the song list was just better, though both sets started with a Cole Porter tune, and both ended with Hersch’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.” The Sunday set followed the Porter with “Sad Poet,” a Hersch composition dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim; two brand-new originals; two ‘60s tunes by Wayne Shorter; and another ballad, before the Berlin. The encore was “Valentine,” another original, which Hersch played solo.

Maybe it was the weather. Before beginning, Hersch thanked the club for the AC, but we could tell the heat was lifting, and were giddy about going home to sleep with the windows open. The music was just a foretaste of that liberation.

Maybe they drew the energy from the full house. Maybe their stars were aligned.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

*

There are actually all sorts of good excuses to go see Fred Hersch twice that have nothing to do with me, or with the fact that he’s a genius. Here’s one: a few years ago, Hersch, who has been living with HIV since the mid-‘80s, suffered a particularly bad bout with the illness, became delusional as the virus migrated to his brain, and was in a coma for two months (see the excellent New York Times profile of January 28, 2010). It’s something of a miracle that he lived, and that he could learn to eat again, let alone play the piano. In fact, when I emailed a friend to tell him I was going to see Hersch, he cited health issues as a reason not to miss the opportunity.

Not that Hersch looks unhealthy per se. More toughened. He comes to a point, like a Giacometti sculpture. You can see the knotted wires of the muscles in his arms and the bones in his cheeks. One senses the same about his music: there is no waste. Not that the music is austere. It’s just not flashy. Play has an economy of its own, which isn’t (necessarily) one of excess.

It’s an eclectic and beautiful music, one filled with the echoes of a wide range of inspirations. I hear Debussy and Schumann (on Sunday, the last movement of the Opus 17 fantasy), Monk, Tommy Flanagan. Of course, the differences are just as important. Take Monk: an easiness with time about both pianists. But Monk flaunts it, dances around the beat, teases it, syncopates the syncopation—which is not at all the same thing as landing back on the beat. If Monk keeps his own time, keeps Monk-time, keeps winding that broken watch, there is something about Hersch’s playing that is without time, in both senses of that word. He’s careless about time, as if in his absorption with a particular phrase or trill he could forget it, at least momentarily. He says, “You go on ahead; I’ll catch up.”

It’s not just escaping time; it’s controlling it, although these are certainly related ideas. After Wednesday’s first ballad, a standard, Hersch chided other pianists for not playing it slowly enough. That is: they should take their time. Play it slowly, and soon the second-hand moves like the minute, the hour. And then not at all. And then all the emotion seeps into the piece between the notes, like water through cracks in wood.

Time isn’t the half of it. A left hand that is colorful but never solicitous, as Hersch’s ex-student Brad Mehldau’s can sometimes be (often, I admit, to my delight). The occasional use of octaves in his phrasing, the quirky trills. The density of his harmonic imagination, and the range of his compositional one—“Jackalope,” my favorite of the new tunes, features a funky 7:8 melody that somehow manages to settle, without changing the meter, into an incredible swing. The passing quote from “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” so much a part of the improvisation that it refused to call attention to itself, stalked off almost before I realized I’d heard it. The beginning of the Berlin arrangement, spidery phrases at the top of the keyboard I had to wrinkle my nose at. The sheer number of beautifully-pruned fingerpaths between two notes, all of them redolent and surprising.

But I don’t want to give the impression that the band is only a platform for Hersch. Hebert took some gorgeous, lengthy solos; I particularly appreciated his feeling for ornament, the fretless slides between notes sometimes recalling an electric bass, while his generous use of intervals reminded me that the instrument is, like the piano, rich with polyphonic possibilities. And Eric McPherson is a softspoken miracle at the drums. Even his outbursts are measured. His first solo, over the Jobim outro, was executed on brushes; it’s the sort of thing a lot of drummers would have beat the crap out of their kits to play. His sense of color, the variety of sounds he gets out of his kit, is also striking: from brushes to sticks to mallets, to letting his hi-hat ring like a Chinese gong … and after all that color, a big solo that eschewed the demolition derby (crashes and rolls) for a single, off-kilter beat that grew increasingly more frenetic and complex.

*

Maybe it was because this was the penultimate set, and this is a trio that burns brighter when it senses the end is near. For Hersch, of course, this is particularly apropos, and much has been made of the way the illness changed his attitude and approach toward his music, his turn toward heightened lyricism, and his fear that each new record might be his last.

But then before starting Sunday’s set, Hersch remarked that he couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone. He asked the club for two weeks next time.

Two weeks! So maybe the opposite is true: not that every album might be his last, but rather that, like Scheherazade, as long as he keeps playing, the end will keep receding. Same thing, except the power balance is shifted. And maybe that’s the reason they never got the endings quite right, the ta-da chord always a little staggered from the cymbal crash. The story’s not over; there’s too much left to say. There’s a next time, a second chance, a second week, a second set.

If we didn’t believe him, all we had to do was listen to him play.

You go on ahead. I’ll catch up.

I didn’t stay for the eleven o’clock set. I guess I, too, refuse to believe in endings. And I fully expect to see him here next year, for two weeks—four sets, why not? I know I’m not the only one. I like to think that’s our little contribution to the equal parts grace and determination that have kept him going so far: a house full of faith.

 

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.