Saturday, September 5, 2009

WIPAC - Amateurs Competition

One of my activities this summer was a visit to our nation's capitol, mixing business and pleasure. Over a hot summer weekend, while the rest of the family went on day-long hikes to the monuments and various Smithsonian museums, I spent the days listening to wonderful amateur pianists, competing in the Washington International Piano Artist Competition. The Gardeckis are the main force behind the event. Being Washington DC, a number of foreign embassies were involved, as hosts for the various stages of the competition and for dinners and parties. The Finnish Embassy, a beautiful wood and glass structure in the woods across from the Vice-President's residency, hosted the semi-finals. The Maison Francaise hosted the finals and awards dinner. The Polish Embassy gave the competition a send-off by hosting my recital. At the same time, the concert was a send-off for the cultural attache, Mariusz Brymora, who is now back in Warsaw after a multi-year stint in the US.

The level of playing was remarkable, as was the adventurous programming. It should be required of all professional pianists and wannabe professionals to attend an amateur competition, where the dedication and focus on craft and communication is so vividly palpable. Of course there are mistakes, memory slips, uneven passagework, etc. There are the same in a professional event as well. What is important is the complete involvement of the players, and by osmosis then, the involvement of the audience and the judges.

Congratulations to all of the pianists who played. I enjoyed meeting all of you, and look forward to seeing you again soon!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Van Cliburn Competition, in Sao Paulo

It was a fortuitous meeting at a private home after a concert (Josh played with orchestra, and I was not part of the concert that night). The pianist Cristina Ortiz was there. She was a friend of the host, and passing through Sao Paulo. We greeted each other as if old friends, that strange condition of "celebrity" (within the classical music world, at least) making our life story familiar to the other, our faces instantly recognized, and yet never having met, not knowing how tall the person would be, the turn of the voice, the physical presence.
Our conversation went quickly to our common thread - the Van Cliburn Competition. It was by chance that I had just attended one of the nights of the finals only a few days before in Fort Worth, TX, and so the results of the competition were still fresh - I still had little bits of news that had not reached the general knowledge banks yet.
We commiserated on the daunting task in front of the two first prize winners - Hauchen Zhang, 19 years old, and Nobu Tsujii, 20 years old and blind since birth - something that she experienced herself as the young winner of the 1969 Van Cliburn. During her competition, Cristina was hosted by the Sampsons, well before Alann Sampson became the Chairman of the Van Cliburn Foundation board, before she became involved with the competition besides being a host to candidates. It is so interesting to see how careers develop in unforeseen ways.

We noted the fact that the top three winners were from China, Japan and South Korea. I think this marks the official domination of Asia in what used to be a traditionally Western art form.
I was heading to Paris in a couple of days, and Cristina was also heading to France, the Southwest, and we tried to figure out if she was going to be going through Paris on the day of my concert, so that she could at least say that she had heard me play! She was not. I'm sure the next time we cross paths will be many years from now. What a strange world, this tiny universe of Classical music...

Instituto Baccarelli in Sao Paulo, Brazil

It's been a few weeks already, but still the memory of this visit to the Instituto Baccarelli persists - the energy, the incredible talent, the intensity of the work ethic. The Instituto is located in the favela of Sao Paulo, and the children who attend the school live among drug dealers, prostitutes, the most needy and the most troubled of the incredibly huge city.
In the spirit of the Youth Orchestra program that was created in Venezuela, many South American countries have established musical/social programs, with the idea that the work ethic necessary to excel at playing an instrument can guide a child through difficulties, both personal and environmental.
Joshua Bell and I were on tour in SA, and the morning of our recital in Sao Paulo, we were scheduled to visit this school. In the middle of a tightly-packed tour, this visit most certainly felt like an obligation - something both Joshua and I do with the idea of encouraging young musicians, young audiences - but there was a moment of revelation, when we realized that what we were dealing with was something much greater than just a neighborhood social program. Instead, we were enthralled by such beautiful music-making, especially on a group level. These young musicians (teenagers, at most early 20's) were listening to each other and working together on a completely professional level.
Joshua said to them, after an enthusiastic performance of Mendelssohn's Finghal's Cave Overture, that he had not heard that kind of inspired and intense music-making in most of the professional orchestras he plays with.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLnxBU4aKus&feature=related

They caught Josh in the right mood at the right moment, and he accepted to play some of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with them on the spot. It turned out to be not just a part, but in fact the entire piece, and Joshua put in what I felt was a bit of extra energy and focus, carried on the shoulders of these young musicians.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8LhDkponO4

We left the school, being pried away by our chaperons from the crowds of kids demanding pictures and autographs, and stepped into cars that drove us past graffiti-covered buildings, shacks and trash, and finally into the nattier parts of town. We saw a number of students at the concert later that evening, and I wondered if they had been there at the school in the morning. If so, then the school had really succeeded in their mission of converting people and place through the practice of music.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Survivor bias at the Van Cliburn

While attending the Van Cliburn Competition last week (another blog entry later!), there was a symposium on the topic of diplomacy and the arts. On stage were two former diplomats, two current cultural attaches – from Russia and from Italy – and James Conlon. One relatively quick mention by Maestro Conlon on the role of patronage in the arts caught my attention. He said that “great art always has a patron” or something to that effect.
The phrase was in the present tense, which made the meaning slightly ambiguous. Did he mean that as a statement of fact, i.e. that in the past up to the present, great art so far has always had a patron? Or did he mean that he mean that as a statement of his belief for the future, that great art will always have a patron? Did he mean that if an artistic endeavor is great, that it will eventually find a patron? Did he mean that patronage needed to be available in order to support what might eventually turn out to be great art? Is there cause and effect? What is the cause – the great art or the existence of patronage? What is the effect?
The provocative statement drew out one of the former ambassadors, who wanted to advocate for private patronage instead of public (government) patronage. (Funnily, his example of Houston Opera’s outreach program supported exactly the opposite point of view!)

Whatever Maestro Conlon actually meant, the phrase sent me off thinking about the effect of survivor bias in great art. This was critical to acknowledge in the area of patronage, and in particular the kind of patronage that we were all a party to in Fort Worth, i.e. the Competition itself.
It may or may not be true that all great art has always found a patron. What is great art in the first place? If there was a definition of “great”, then we could determine if patronage existed and confirm or disprove the rule.
We CAN say that much great art has had patronage behind it. Support from the church, from royalty, from aristocracy, from governments, from corporations, from private donors – all of these categories supply endless examples of the productivity of their support. Ticket sales has never been a good judge of what is great and what is not, in Classical music and in any other kind of art from!

So we can say that much good art has benefited from patronage. But we cannot assume that all great art will, nor that bad art has NOT benefited from patronage. What we enjoy today that is the legacy of the past 300 years of composing for the piano, for example, includes thousands examples of incredible creation. We recognize Mozart as a genius, who was also recognized by various Emperors and Counts as good enough composer and performer that they provided a good part of his sustenance throughout his life which allowed him to produce some undeniable masterpieces. We also recognize that Salieri, who also received much support from many of the same figures, was not such a great artist, and did not produce as much great music.

We have a tendency to think that great art will make its mark, no matter what, and point to history to prove our point. But the it is the victors who write history, and the survivors who define the terms.

In the direct example of the Van Cliburn Competition, it is clear that not all the great talents that have passed through that competition have received medals. Nor that all the medalists could be called great talents. But the support system is there, and the talent is there as well, and often the two have met and created something.

And that is the important aspect of patronage, which for me points to both the importance and necessity of private and public (government) patronage, as well as the necessity of both institutional and personal patronage. We need the enthusiasm of the private and of the individual patron. That is the energy that will fuel great passions. We also need the stability and readiness of public and institutional, long-term patronage. We never know when great talent will appear, and the support needs to be ready. One needs to work hard in order to be ready for luck!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Missed opportunity - Abbey Simon's concert

After playing at Lincoln Center's newly re-opened Alice Tully Hall a few weeks ago (Chamber Music Society's Prokofiev Festival), I was very eager to play a solo piano recital in the hall - or at least hear a piano recital! The very successful renovation did relatively little to the acoustics as heard from the stage - I had always found it a pleasant if not rewarding stage to play on, for chamber music or solo. There was a slight lack of reverb coming back from the audience that made the big build up of sound impossible, and yet it was clean and rich.
I'd sat in the hall many times as well, and the renovation has done a lot to improve the situation from that perspective. The acoustics are much finer and focused, and the viewing in particular has been vastly improved. Before, when I sat in the house, I had a feeling of being in the middle of an open field, with those strange low middle walls seeming to cut off the back of the hall from the front. Now, the visuals, the colors, the flow all seem to guide the listener to the stage.
My experience with the Chamber Music Society concert was wonderful for many reasons, but the one frustrating aspect was the fact that both pieces I played - the Prokofiev F minor Sonata for Violin and the D Major for Flute - required some pulling back in terms of sound. The Flute Sonata especially required some nimble control in order to convey a sense of depth and density and not overwhelm the lower register of the flute. Despite all of Ransom Wilson's efforts, I think that there were still moments when the flutist looked like he was miming the part. Sorry Ransom!

All this to say that I am still looking forward to the opportunity to pull a full sound from a great piano in that hall. I think it will feel great on stage.
Until then, it was a great joy to be in the audience for one of the first piano recitals in the new Tully, last night for the concert of Abbey Simon. When I studied with Mr. Simon (it is still hard for me to call him Abbey, though I try) over 20 years ago, he did not seem any livelier or engaged than he did last night on stage and backstage. What amazed me then still amazed me today - the unusual technique that combines seemingly stiff arms and hands and incredibly powerful and dextrous fingertips - I could never figure this out, despite all of my efforts to duplicate the look and feel; the infallible musical line, almost to a fault I would say in some music that requires (in my humble opinion!) a more non-musical or even ugly approach, but never unwelcome in Chopin or Schumann or even Beethoven; the ability to bring out beautiful inner voices that I had never heard before, and sometimes could not find even after searching in the score; the amazing musical memory and (when that might rarely fail) the even more amazing improvisational gift.
This was the first time I had heard Abbey play Bach - he began the program with the C Minor Toccata. I would not have pegged him to play this piece, but his performance was beautiful, with all the freedom of a Busoni and the complexity of a Hamelin. The fugues were delineated so clearly, and yet with such musical flexibility they seemed fully contemporary. He was not against the occasional doubling of the left hand with octaves to create more bass support. It was a glorious opening.
The Clementi Sonata that followed was one played by Horowitz, and the comparison was hard to avoid, given that I had not heard anyone else play this piece before. It put into perspective for me how Mr. Simon fit so well into that mold of pianists - completely individual, but with great respect for the music, and all aspects of "music" - which include the repertoire, the style, the stage presence, the virtuosity, the charm.
The Beethoven Sonata Opus 81a finished the first half. The joy of playing the piano came through first and foremost, and this work, one of the rare pieces of Beethoven's that carry any programmatic reference to the outside world, made clear to me how Abbey's playing was consistently "piano-playing". He never tries to make the piano sound like a voice, or like a harpsichord, or like an orchestra. It always sounds like a gorgeous piano, in all the myriad subtleties of color and dynamics that the instrument affords. Likewise, his presentation of the instrument, of himself, of the concert, is always pointing to piano-playing and its great joys and powers.
Chopin always strove to make the piano sing, and Liszt always wanted to make the piano an orchestra. Debussy tried to create a gamelan, and Busoni wanted an organ. Prokofiev wanted to tell a fairy-tale. Boulez wanted to make you think.
Rachmaninoff was one of the few who just wanted a piano, and he would make it work to the limits of its possibilities. Schubert also wrote music that was just music for the piano, no more, no less. Listening to Abbey play Beethoven, I suddenly felt an urge to hear him play Schubert, which, like Bach, I also have never heard him play in concert.
The second half began with two charming Chopin Waltzes - impetuous, swirling and whirling. I wondered how he was able to ping some of the high notes, with the right hand hovering above the keyboard seemingly forever, and yet what hand was it that was playing the melody back in the middle of the keyboard! Abbey's ability to manipulate the pulse was one of the things I admired most in his playing when I studied with him, and it was something I pondered and experimented with for many years before finding my own way of working with and around the pulse.
The F Minor Ballade followed, one of the pieces I had worked on with Mr. Simon during my Juilliard days. My memory of lessons were long faded and illegible, and the score that I had used at the time, with notes from those lessons and others has since been left sitting in a phone booth somewhere in Paris. But I did remember, as I listened, the feeling of bewilderment as I contemplated all the different aspects that combined to create his Ballade, when I was simply struggling to learn the notes and get it memorized. I could not have been aware of even a 1/10 of what I seemed to be hearing now, with the experiences since lived and the appreciate since gained. I do, however, remember thinking many times "so this is what I will have to be able to do if I have any hopes of having any kind of career as a performer."
I was slightly disheartened to hear the occasional passages of infamous technical difficulty being swept through, dissonances from octaves played slightly too small, chords played slightly too crushed, passagework executed slightly less crystalline than I had seemed to remember him doing perhaps 5-10 years ago. He had had his accident a few years ago, the broken thumb that had not healed well, and which forced him to rethink his fingering in repertoire that he had lived with for decades without any thought of accomodation. But the thoughts quickly turned any disappointment into another kind of amazement, of being able to fiddle with the pedal and some follow-up voicing to cleverly conceal the dissonances, the extraneous notes used to add some special "color". And the musical line was never broken, not for a second.
Many pianists of a certain age begin to slow down. Many have more to say, and they feel they have earned the right to slow down and say all of those things, and we listen to them with gratefulness. Other pianists probably are happy to have the excuse of age to pull back a bit on the gas, and they discover that they can find great music in places they had not looked into before. It seems to me that Mr. Simon has found a way to keep his age at bay for the most part. His tempos show no sign of slowing, and yet he still has so many things to say. His musical flourishes (not virtuosic flourishes, although they are virtuosic to execute them the way he does) often push the tempo, in order to later slow down in suspension, and I felt no trepidation in his willingness to do just that, even as his technique perhaps might sometimes have advised him otherwise. For the most part, Mr. Simon is still the "young" pianist that I knew from the 70's and 80's!
The final piece on the program, Ravel's Miroirs, was a work that I "discovered" in Paris, and my approach had always been somewhat different from what I had heard around me, from both French and non-French pianists. A bit slower, a bit more flexible, yet around a rigidly held pulse. It had been years since I heard Abbey play any of Miroirs, in fact, certainly before I studied the piece myself. My curiosity was doubly satisfied as I listened to an interpretation that I would have been happy to claim for my own. I had never heard Oiseaux Tristes played with the kind of shape of the line and layering of voices except in my own mind as I tried to play it that way myself, and here was Mr. Simon doing it just that way. Likewise with Noctuelles, the musical approach that was not lyrical per se, but certainly also not virtuosic, somewhere in that middle ground between the piano and rustling leaves. Perhaps without even knowing it, I had absorbed Mr. Simon's teaching even in pieces I had not studied directly with him. Alborada del gracioso was a graceful end to the program, which then continued with only two encores!
We all wanted more, all of the few hundred people in the 1800-seat Tully Hall that seemed to shrink that number to just dozens. And no press! Where was the NY Times, who had so graciously attended another of my own CMS concerts, in the tiny Rose Studio, no less, and had recently given many inches of text and pictures to Andras Schiff and Nelson Freire. Certainly, both of these pianists are worthy of some time and some ink, but all the more so then that Abbey Simon should merit at least 3 inches and a grainy photograph.
Well, it was only yesterday. I will keep my eyes open for something, some kind of after-effect that could possibly let a few people know that they missed an incredible opportunity to see one of the great pianists, still playing in a way that thrills and chills. We who were there, many of us students of his from various stages of life, from ages 20 to 70, come from around the area and from far-off states, were in the know, and we knew not to be anywhere else that particular evening.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

American Pianists Association (APA) finals and thoughts

Thanks to good weather and competent airlines, I was able to go from the Liszt Society Festival directly to the American Pianists Association’s final evening concert and award ceremony. The juxtaposition of the two made me reflect on the role of competitions today, compared to their role during Liszt’s time.

Liszt did win a major competition, an informal one for the favor of the Princesse Belgiojoso. This high society figure managed a social booking slight-of-hand, obtaining the presence of both Sigismund Thalberg and Franz Liszt at the same charity soirée. Liszt, having earlier firmly established his reputation as Paris’ leading pianist, felt comforable enough to leave on a long tryst with Marie d’Agoult outside of France. During his prolonged absence, Thalberg sensed an opening and began jockeying for the pole position, and, against an absent champion, found a considerable following (with short memories!) ready to crown him #1. Liszt obtained word of this pretender to his throne, and quickly made his way back to Paris to play in the same hall as Thalberg on a following night.
So who was #1? The question was in the air, and needed an answer. To make a long and interesting story short, the Princesse finessed her way to having Thalberg and Liszt play their most impressive pieces, one after another. The hushed crowd awaited her response – would it be politically correct, or would it be socially risky, or possibly personally subjective? The judgment was that Thalberg was the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique. A “first” was decided, but what to do with someone who is unique, and therefore by definition “first” and only?
The process and results of this match-up could be taken as a model for today’s many competitions, but the result would be a complete uproar. There are very few princesses today who command such respect that their word would be taken without question. And when an indecisive result is announced, there is dissatisfaction among the masses, who demand to know “who is first?”

The American Pianists Association, among the many hundreds of piano competitions for those seeking to become professionals on the world stage, has taken a different tack in many ways, and one of the most obvious is the choice of two “fellows”, equal in their recognition and in the prizes awarded and the support given to them. Where this is similar to every other competition is that there are three others who are NOT fellows. And with this choice, there are obviously disappointments and second judgments and accusations and suspicions; these are part and parcel of the competition process, no matter how it is organized. One organization, the Gilmore Competition, tries to avoid this by making their competition secret, but the process is the same.
The APA tries many other ways to mitigate this competition effect, some quite innovative and many unique in the competition world. Besides the choice of two co-laureats, the decision is arrived at by a cumulative vote of multiple judges on different panels. Where most competitions have a jury panel of many people, the cumulation from one panel to another is innovative, and creates certain effects. Some are good – the fact that individual influence from specific judges is lessened, removing some of the political pressures that are inevitable between professional colleagues. This also removes the “stigma” of responsibility from individual judges in the eyes of both the contestants and the general public.
What remains in this method, and is in fact accentuated, is the mathematical impossibility of putting a number on an amorphous, multi-faceted, highly subjective and passionate interaction between composer, performer and listener, and then manipulating a collection of these nuance-challenged numbers further into a one-dimensional ranking of pianists. The more judges involved, the more this mathematical phenomenon becomes evident. The final results will be skewed to favor more generally pleasing performances. This does not mean a unique, individual talent cannot win a competition – some have – but they will have to be recognized and appreciated far and above someone who has a more centrist, conservative approach.

Another APA innovation is what they call the Premier Series. This is a five-month long process whereby each of the five finalists is invited to spend a one-week residency in Indianapolis (home base for the APA), playing concerts, doing outreach with local schools, and teaching. For each of the finalists, they are paid a reasonable fee for their work, and they feel the least amount of competition pressure that a contestant can feel – there are no other contestants around, and hardly any mention of any others. They have their time in the spotlight, and they become a known entity to the city and to thousands of residents personally, through their community involvement and the media.
This is a huge investment on the part of the APA, in terms of time, energy and budget – they are essentially putting on an entire music season, based around the five artists selected. In the end, I wonder if this is not a more financially clever approach than the one-time, concentrated Piano Competition approach of most other events; there is an investment in the community, and there is a great return on investment then during the finals week and a long tail effect as the fellows benefit from the two years of career support. There is no control group to compare to, so the question is hypothetical. But my impression from the attitude and conversations of the public on the last night of the finals was that there was a family feeling, and a family sense of involvement and protection, no matter what. There were high school students and parents, young couples, and the usual older classical music audience. Whether the APA could do better or not, they certainly have an invested audience.

Another innovation that I want to point out is the idea that there is an American school of piano-playing, and that it is something worth looking for and supporting. The APA is open to US citizens, even though the scope of the program is international, and the fellows travel around the world as part of their career support. The contestants are international in their origins – Russian, Korean, Chinese, Polish, etc – but that is a singular characteristic of the United States, and one that is worth underlining. The boundary line of citizenship for qualification makes the international element of the competition even more visible and remarkable, for the public and for the contestants themselves, I think. As the “fellows” travel outside the US, their role as cultural ambassadors will be highlighted, and give them a chance to reflect on what it means to be an American pianist, vs a Russian pianist or a Korean pianist, etc. There is something particular about the American “school”, which is not sensed so much in the music itself as it is in the more globally passionate and liberated approach to playing and to career-building. It is a meta-style, and because of that, we need (we being players and listeners) to recognize what we are being meta about! Being an American pianists means needing to know what you are not, and that means needing to know about other cultures and other styles and other philosophies. It’s not so much serving up a melting pot, but rather providing a grander view of the entire menu and making your own mix.

My disclaimer will come here, as I describe a final innovation that may seem self-serving but which has been one of the significant developments for my own career. In 1985, while still a student, I became one of the fellows (there were three at that time, and the APA was called the Beethoven Foundation). The prize and the support that came in the following years gave me a great platform for experimenting and experiencing. While the competition was very different back then in an organizational way, the basic underlying idea was already there. I have since been lucky enough to be involved in the APA in other ways. On the other side of the divide, being a screening judge charged to select the five finalists out of a pool of close to 100. And right on the divide, as I gathered with the group of finalists to take them through my Deeper Piano Studies workshop, for the express purpose of removing some of the competitive aspects of the event. The DPS workshops encourage not only a more holistic approach to piano-playing, they also focus on aspects of learning that are more collaborative rather than independent or competitive, something which most pianists don’t even recognize while they hole themselves up for hours a day in the practice room. I was disappointed not to have been able to organize the DPS workshop for this last group because of some date conflicts, but previous competitions proved to be some of the most satisfying groups that I have worked with.

I would have loved to work with this particular group - Elizabeth Joy Roe, Grace Fong, Adam Golka, Michael Kirkendoll and Igor Lovchinsky. I only had the opportunity to hear Michael (Corigliano Concerto) and Adam (Rach 3) in concert, but met the others, and was struck by the great diversity and most notably the great experience that these finalists were bringing to their performances. It would have been wonderful to work with these five and see how they deal with stage fright, what methods of meditation and imagery they bring to their practicing, their approach to analysis, and above all, their interactions with each other as colleagues and as people.
At the end of the evening, the two fellows were named – Adam Golka and Grace Fong. Not having heard Grace, or Elizabeth or Igor, I had to hold my own judgment, but judging from the repertoire and the personalities, I was very intrigued by Michael Kirkendoll, and there were many in the audience who seemed to agree with me. He brought an intensity and engagement to the Corigliano that captivated the listeners who, I’m very sure, were hearing the piece for the first time, and probably hearing a piece like that for the first time also, never thinking they would actually enjoy the experience. There was a general breath of relief when the opening of the Rachmaninoff emerged under the hands of Adam Golka, but he didn’t let the audience sit back and just relax either – his reading was unusual and complex, very personal and a bit restrained for my tastes. There was no denying the talent, and given the fact that Adam is young, I was also incredibly impressed.

Where do these young pianists keep coming from!? With my career as a competition pianist long gone, my reflections on the state of the classical music world and the world of the piano especially go through ups and downs. With my own experience as a parent, I wonder where do children today have the time to focus on an instrument in a long-term, daily way that is necessary for the real development of the body, mind and heart that goes into piano-playing? Then I hear talents like the ones in Indianapolis, and I talk to them and hear their personal engagement, their passion for their projects and their pieces, and I feel reassured that the talent is there, at the very least. The piano and its incredible repertoire has won over yet another set of people. And if presenters and competitions will provide the necessary platforms, there will be for many years still the artists and the audience for an evening of great piano music.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Liszt's DNA?

The weekend was a highlight for this particular Liszt fan - the annual festival/conference of the American Liszt Society. The main reason was the presence of the 1886 Bechstein concert grand in the middle of the grand foyer of the Spencer Museum of Art on the University of Kansas campus, a beautiful instrument preserved in sight and in sound. Being a museum piece, the parts were almost all original - hammers, keys, soundboard, case. Only the strings have been replaced. Normally, all of this "original" cachet would be a bad thing for a piano over 100 years old. The piano is, after all, a mechanical object, highly complex and sensitive, but made with an organic, malleable material - wood. In this case, however, "original" was not a label for the performing pianist to run away from; on the contrary, the fact that the wood used to make the soundboard and the pinblock was most likely naturally well-aged and very dense probably explained why, despite an entire day of heavy Liszt playing, the tuning didn't budge, and the richness of the instrument's sound rang powerfully in all the different ranges and through all the different dynamic levels.

But before knowing any of this, I encountered the piano through its sound as I entered the museum for the first time; someone (I would find out later, Anna Volovitch) was playing the Rhapsodie Espagnole, at 10:30 in the morning!! The first thought that came to mind was, "That can't be the 1886 Bechstein - it sounds way too loud." Even though double doors, the clarity of the notes struck me, and the rich resonances of the coda were both articulated and harmonious (with no small credit going to Anna, of course).
As I circled around to the back entrance, I realized that this WAS the instrument. I noticed my slight sense of relief, which underlined the extent of my previous concerns about playing on a "period" instrument. The small but attentive morning audience was arranged to both the left and right sides of the piano and the pianist, in a way that Liszt himself would have probably favored for this space, an ornate chamber of stone and plaster. An exhibit on "Trees and their Ramifications" was installed in the room - I wondered if the curator meant to include this amazing example of the ramifications of wood that was being played at that moment.
The high ceilings opened into the upper passageways of the museum, where groups occasionally passed by, in the midst of visiting an exhibit on Chinese art, leaning over the edge to observe the proceedings and put a face on the music that permeated the entire museum.
At the end of the concert, I greeted the many friends I had expected to see there - my teacher from Indiana University days, Dr. Karen Shaw, two of her doctoral students, Steven Spooner, the director of this year's festival/conference. Immediately, other familiar faces began popping up - Paul Barnes, from Lincoln, Nebraska, Justin Kolb, Susan Winerock... Other faces became familiar to me as the day continued. The ambiance was one of satisfied membership - deep lovers and connoisseurs of Liszt understand first and foremost the incredible humanity and generosity of the man, which I think makes it hard to feel even the slightest bit of that disdain that often accompanies membership in select clubs.
Following the morning concert was a lecture about the piano, given by a Liszt scholar and the curator of the Spencer museum. We heard about the creation of this specific instrument, number 10092, built in 1886, and immediately shipped to England, where it was installed in a private home that would host Liszt on his last visit to England. There is a question as to how much Liszt actually used the piano - there were a number of private events at the house, as well as lessons, but, according to the scholar Geraldine Keeling's talk, none of the extensive notes about that trip to England point specifically to Liszt playing this Bechstein 10092. (I looked for possible Liszt DNA matter later, but could not verify anything personally. The question therefore is still open, I guess.)
Personally, it didn't matter. What moved me was the knowledge that Liszt appreciated the Bechstein piano in general, being very familiar with it from the inception of the company. The fact that he knew and loved these instruments and that this was an exemplary specimen combined to create a special aura around this weekend.
Following Geraldine's talk, Susan Earle, curator of the Spencer Museum, told us about the history of the instrument as it pertained to the museum. As a permanent resident of the museum, it is one of the rare pieces that is not just seen but also used, which makes for a delicate balance in its maintenance. Eventually there will come a day when the original hammers and mechanism will no longer be adequate for playing, but that day might be a long time coming, to judge by the results of this weekend.
After lunch, the audience, now slightly larger, reassembled to listen to Edmund Battersby perform Schumann, Liszt and Chopin. I had heard only the virtuosic ending of the Rhapsodie Espagnole, and now I was in a different mindset, having sat through the lecture and immersed myself in the arcana of piano manufacturing. The first notes of Schumann's Waldszenen were simultaneously delicate and penetrating, revealing another aspect of this incredible instrument - it's amazing depth of tone and nuance. As I listened, John Perry came in through the back and listened, playing along on his leg (he was to perform the same two days later).
I had to reserve the hours before the concert for concentration and practice, despite the urgency of various personal responsibilities (tax time!). After running around looking for a way to get an internet connection, sending some vital emails, making some quick phone calls and quickly grabbing my concert paraphernalia at my host family's house, I returned to the hall, in time to catch the final notes of Adam Gyorgy's recital. The crowd had gotten even bigger since after lunch, and when the last person left the room, I finally settled into a chair before the ornate black lacquered case. The Bechstein logo took up a good part of the fallboard - "C. Bechstein/Hof-Lieferant Sr. Maj/des Kaisers u. Königs/Berlin." On the left side of the keyboard, a plaque told a quick history of its encounter with Liszt:

This
pianoforte
was manufactured
expressly for
the Abbé
Franz Liszt
and was placed in his study at
Westwood House Sydenham
where it was used by the
great master during his
last visit to England
April 3-19, 1886.

My first notes on the instrument were the opening of Bach's Ab Major Prelude from book 2 of the WTC. The opening chordal fanfare in Ab is a great way to judge both the melodic and harmonic profile of a piano. In addition, I had realized earlier in the day, with a lump in my throat, that I had forgotten to practice this piece! In my mind, the program was slightly different; I had inadvertently substituted a Bach/Busoni Chorale for this P&F. But as soon as I saw the correct program printed in the festival booklet, I remembered why I had wanted to include the P&F and gave myself a kick for having forgotten. My experience at the lecture, concert and lunch from earlier was overlaid with an added element - my mental practicing of the P&F. I asked for Steven Spooner's help in getting a copy of the score - I would probably have to play with music, not having performed this piece in a couple of years.
The silver quality of the Bechstein sound shined for the Bach, both in the spinning single lines and the reverberating chords. The Fugue was inspiringly clear - the resonance of hall notwithstanding, each note retained its core, allowing even notes in the lower register to sound clean and independent. I thought ahead and already knew that some of the knottier polyphony of the Beethoven Quartet transcriptions I was going to play later in the program would work beautifully on this instrument.
Next I played the Beethoven Sonata Op 54 in F Major. This rare two-movement Sonata is a Hidden Gem, and the fact that it was written in the same year as the inception of the Fifth Symphony made it a natural to be on this program. The spare layering of voices in this work came across perfectly, and the singing legato was a pure joy. I found myself intuitively playing at a slower tempo, with more freedom to pull back, in order to truly enjoy the clarity of the voices.
Then I rehearsed the rest of the Bach pieces, all with a general feeling of holding back, I slowly realized. As I was rehearsing right before showtime, there would be very little time to do even touch up tuning. But then I wondered when during the day had there been time BEFORE my rehearsal for the tuner to have made any touch-ups? There had not been! And the piano was in great shape, after those many hours of intense piano-playing.
Even on a mechanical level, I was worried I could do some damage - I tell audiences the story of how Liszt, when he performed the 5th Symphony, would keep a piano backstage, in order to do a switch after the first movement; the strain on the piano would invariably produce broken strings and hammers - but the action was very reliable. Repetitions were easy, the action was light (too light!) and relatively even. I let myself dig in incrementally, never feeling any danger of changing the tuning or hurting the action.
After playing the Bach, I wanted to move on to the Beethoven Quartet transcriptions by Saint-Saëns and Alkan. Unfortunately, I had left my scores sitting on the bed in my host family's house! I called them to ask them to bring the scores with them, as I would have had to spend precious rehearsal time going back and forth.
Skipping the quartets, I ran through most of the Beethoven Symphony V, directly confronting the issue of the missing sostenuto pedal. For these difficult scores, I need any tool I can use to help differentiate voices, and the sostenuto pedal is a great one. (The pedal did not become standard on a grand piano until the 20th century.)
Although the piano's inherent sound favored the differentiation of voices, there were three or four key moments where the effect of the sostenuto could not be replicated in any other way. I gave myself a small pep talk - "What would Liszt do?" In fact, it would be more accurate to ask "What DID Liszt do?" I would have to rely on subtle damper pedaling and focus even more on voicing.

Beethoven Sonata in F Major Opus 54

Bach Prelude and Fugue in Ab Major, WTC Book II
Bach/Chiu Erbarme dich from St Matthew Passion
Bach/Busoni Chorale Preludes Nun freut euch, lieben Christen and Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

Beethoven/Alkan Cavatine from Opus 130
Beethoven/St-Saëns Adagio from Opus 18 #6
Beethoven/St-Saëns Fugue from Opus 59 #3

Beethoven/Liszt Symphony V

The concert was delayed as volunteers scoured the museum for any movable chairs they could find. Some museum pieces in the 19th century drawing room where I was stationed did not get taken, but almost everything else found its way into the hall. As I entered the hall, I saw the circle of people had grown considerably, and now completely surrounded the piano. I wondered again if Liszt were in this situation, what would he have preferred? Having the piano at one end of the space, with the audience to his right, the open piano lid facing them directly, as Liszt was the first pianist in history to do? Or would he in fact have enjoyed being completely surrounded by his admirers? Probably in this acoustic space, so resonant and open, he would have decided based on ambiance rather than solely on acoustics, and he would have wanted to be in the middle of it all, just the way the festival organizers had decided to arrange things.

The program was put together around the amazing transcription of the 5th Symphony, the first half being a preparation for the Symphony. I wanted some original Beethoven music, to show that Beethoven's musical language flows naturally from the original to the transcribed. The Sonata in F Major, created at the same time as the Symphony, displays some remarkable similarities and contrasts with its larger and more famous sibling. Similar in its compactness (the Sonata has only 2 movements and lasts only 12 minutes long, the Symphony lasts only 30 minutes) and its organic austerity. Contrasting in their personality (intimate and curious vs aggressive and take-charge). The set of Beethoven Quartet movements transcribed by others underlines the attempt by others to follow in the footsteps of the great master transcriber in his faithfulness to the original score. The Bach set functions as a microcosm of the Beethoven works - an original Bach, a transcription of Bach by a follower of the great transcription traditions, and transcription of Bach by a great master (in this case, Busoni).

As I sat down and began to play, I let myself enjoy the sound, and enjoy the idea of Liszt at this piano. The Beethoven Sonata unfolded in a much freer fashion than usual, led by the piano's incredibly long, singing tone. The Bach set went very well; the transcription of the Beethoven Fugue got a little out of control - a run-through earlier in the day would have been a good idea; Note to self - do not forget music. The Bechstein's light and shallow action combined with a fast repetition made playing this piece much more difficult. Instead of a solid wall of physical resistance to push against in terms of tempo, the piano could go faster than me. I had to consciously stay at a specific tempo and manually and consciously play every repeated note, which made it physically much more strenuous and difficult.
The Symphony benefited immediately from this experience, with appropriate tempi and pacing of dynamics. Nonetheless, the lighter and faster piano did not make the playing easier - I was much more tired at the end of this performance than I have been after playing on modern pianos. I'm sure a few more performances would have brought me more insight into a slightly different physical approach to this kind of instrument.

A great dinner afterward at Teller restaurant (including a delectable ravioli with duck confit!!) ended 24 hours of wonderful discovery and camaraderie, a day that had started with an entire banana-papaya smoothie dripping down my back on a plane (my own stupidity, too embarrassing to put out on the web!) and ended with a feeling of having approached more closely than ever in my career an empathy for and appreciation of that amazing figure, Franz Liszt.
Thanks so much to Steven Spooner and everyone involved in the festival for putting on such a great event.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

e-Competition II - The contestants

It was a great week for pianists and piano-lovers in NYC - at Rockefeller University, contestants hoping to compete in the Van Cliburn Competition were presenting free live recitals for a screening jury and a live audience, and at the Yamaha showroom at 54th and 5th Ave, the e-Competition was holding its screening auditions in a more technologically advanced way, through the use of the Disklavier. Whereas the Van Cliburn Competition is sending its jurors across the world to hear live auditions, we members of the e-Competition jury were happily ensconced in NYC, armchair travelers listening to auditions recorded in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. I noticed that there were a number of contestants who were present in the rosters of both competitions. I would have loved to hear them play both live and on Disklavier!

Reflecting the state of piano today, the contestants came from all over the world.

China - 12
US - 10
Russia - 10
South Korea - 5
Ukraine - 3
Canada - 3
Others - 19

We weren't given information about where these people are based, or where they studied. Taking the audition site as the only piece of information, it is clear there is much cross-pollination happening on a musical level. (I admit, I'm US biased!!)

Chinese based outside China - 7
Chinese based in the US - 7
Russians based outside Russia - 6
Russians based in the US - 1
S. Koreans based outside of S. Korea - 5
S. Koreans based in the US - 5
Americans based outside the US - 0 (come on, fellow Americans, we need more outside input!)

So one question that comes to mind is: Does piano-playing still reflect a difference of traditions from one culture to another? My impression is that there are two recognizable styles of playing that could be called national "schools", even though they may reflect as much a culturally-grounded approach to music or labor-based activities as they do reflect any national traditions of playing or teaching. These are the Russian "school" and the South Korean "school". The first is distinct on a musical level, which could be described as "robust" and "overt". The traditional emphasis on rigorous technical training is also evident in the precision of the playing, which also contributes to the robust and overt character of the playing. This is a major generalization, of course, which overlooks the presence of at least 2 Russian candidates who can best be described as "ghostly", although ghostly with precision!
The South Korean school is recognizable in its seriousness, both in the sense of a deeply disciplined and studied approach to the music and to the playing. This very often translates into a rather dour musical character as well. Here again, one exception seemed to prove the rule.
What we see in the Chinese and American contestants is also a definite national tendency, but characterized more by a lack of unity than any one particular element. In the Chinese contestants, there is an attention to accuracy and brilliance, but this comes across either as a very conservative, careful approach or a wild, raw approach. Perhaps the difference depends on the amount of influence coming from outside of China - my experience in China has been, up until very recently, that the younger the student, the more impressive and original the musical personality. The continued and currently explosive opening up of China to the European, Russian and American traditions of playing and teaching will continue to make huge marks on its enormous pool of talent. China is far from having mapped out its trajectory in the piano world.
For the Americans, it has always been a hodge-podge, and this competition offered nothing to contradict that idea. In a way, the lack of any major support of Classical music in the US means that those who do end up pursuing it as a career are doing it out a greater sense of personal motivation, and hence are more dedicated, and offer playing that is more emotionally driven. The lack of a cultural base in the US, however, means that the playing is often imitative, or extreme in its ideological pursuit of individual musical goals. The Americans also would benefit from opening up to Europe and Russia, more than just opening up the country to Europeans and Russians!

The repertoire that candidates choose to present is a telling factor. In this particular competition, the screening audition required a movement of a Classical-era Sonata and an Etude. In the context of a 25 minute program, this left somewhere between 12-20 minutes of free choice taken from their first round repertoire. For those lucky pianists whose strengths are the Classical era works and/or virtuosic pianism, the requirements played into their hand. For most, however, their challenge was to be able to present as full a portrait of their interests, in under 20 minutes.
The repertoire that the contestants propose for their first competition round, 65-75 minutes worth, is completely free from restrictions. With this freedom, you would expect a great exploration of the limits of the piano world - great works by obscure composers, or obscure works by great composers, the whole transcription repertoire already in existence, as well as an invitation to add to that repertoire, and compelling contemporary works, perhaps even a world premiere! Unfortunately, this is not the case for most competitions that allow free choice, and was not the case for the most part for this particular e-Competition, at least judging by the selections in the screening round.

Here are the composers most represented (in parentheses, the composers included in the required rubrique "Classical Sonata" and "Etude")

(Chopin) - 49
Chopin - 13
(Beethoven) - 33
(Liszt) - 13
Liszt - 11
(Haydn) - 18
(Mozart) - 10
Ravel - 9
Rachmaninoff - 8
Brahms - 7
Prokofiev - 5
(Scriabin) - 2
Scriabin - 3
(Stravinsky) - 1
Stravinsky - 4

And the most presented individual works:

Beethoven Opus 110 - 8
Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit - 8
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #1) - 7
Liszt La Campanella - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #8) - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 25 #12) - 5
Rachmaninoff Sonata #2 - 5

Given the vastness of the piano literature, why are there so many contestants piling up on so few works? Part of it is the fact that these are canonic works, necessary for every student to pass through in order to understand the common language and traditions of piano-playing. Beethoven's Sonata Opus 110 is a beautiful work that is so rich with detail and yet so ambiguous that it invites multiple approaches, reveals different aspects of its construction with the constantly changing perspective of time and cultural distance.
Even a work as straightforward as Liszt's La Campanella fits this description - rich and yet ambiguous, creating a clear framework while at the same time providing enough freedom of interpretation for a performer's personal take. Not to mention the continuously challenging virtuosity which makes every attempt to play it a make or break occasion!
Given the competition's age limit of 32, it is to be expected that many of the contestants are still in their studying phase - exploring the standard piano repertoire, with the guidance of a teacher and their classes. It is also to be expected that they would find the core repertoire very compelling - there is a good reason these works have been included in the "core" over the years. We find, therefore, many contestants presenting themselves in professional competitions with the works they are currently immersed in, which will very often be the core pieces. This is completely sincere and smart from the contestant's point of view.
From the judge's point of view, however, the breadth of the young pianist's interests is as important as the depth of their understanding of particular pieces. There must come a time when one begins the break from the crowd, and judge's are also looking for that break. We are looking for a difficult balance - a respect for the core, put into relief by a contrast with non-standard works. This is also the case in terms of the details of interpretation - we want to see that the player knows the basics, and at the same time, that he knows when he is introducing something beyond that.

The development of the competition "circuit" is a major factor in the decisions of today's young pianist. When I entered into that age of competing internationally, there were merely a few dozen events around the world. Today, there are many hundreds, often taking place at the same time (see the Van Cliburn above!). The fact that many competitions often ask for certain required works, someone presenting themselves to many competitions would do well to use their repertoire efficiently. Ironically, this is the exact opposite effect that one would wish for if one's goal in organizing a piano competition was to encourage the knowledge and enjoyment of the piano.
Even as competitions are opening up their repertoire requirements – ever since the 1993 Van Cliburn, the year that I was involved – there are still incentives to limit the scope of one’s repertoire, because of the great pressures on competitors to present seasoned works, works that one has lived with for many years. These will tend to be those works one learns early on as a student, i.e. the canon of the repertoire.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are the pieces that only one pianist chose to present:

Barber Sonata
Bartok Out of Doors Suite
Granados Goyescas
Gubaidulina Chaconne
Liebermann Gargoyles
Messiaen Regard de l’Esprit de Joie
Mozart/Arcadi Marche Turque
Schnittke Improvisation and Fugue
Schumann Carnaval
Tchaikowsky Dumka
Vine Sonata #1
Zaimont Wizards (2003)

Of these, I would single out for special mention the Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Zaimont Wizards as being particuarly daring. These are not pieces usually associated with competition repertoire – not easy to listen to, approachable works. The Zaimont was the most original choice – a work written 5 years ago, therefore with very little performing history behind it. I wonder why there is not more of this kind of exploration of repertoire. The first impression given by an artist to a judge or an audience member is established well before the performer comes out on stage, by the calling card which is the program. The intrigue developed by intelligent and probing programming is important to the state of mind of the listener, especially in a competition, where the default mindset is one of being critical. Judges are, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are consciously looking for it or not, are influenced by comparisons. If there are 10 people playing the same Beethoven Sonata, it is tempting – if not inevitable – to wonder if this one was “better” than that one, losing sight of the real goal, which is judging each performance by its own merits.

Overall, my impressions of the competitors reinforced my feelings about young pianists today – there is wonderful cross-pollenation happening, with the Chinese pianists having passed a tipping point and now roaring up from behind. This experience reinforced my impressions about competitions as well – their influence is still overwhelming on young pianists, and it is difficult to engage the system without falling into the traps that exist within. The ratio of unique talents to wonderfully trained pianists is about what I expected – of the 62 pianists, I had 10 in my “absolutely” list. Not all of them made it into the final 24. But that will be the topic of another blog entry!

e-Competition I - the Yamaha Disklavier Pro Mark IV

A virtual contestant playing in Moscow, behind the Disklavier playing in NYC.

This past week, I spent 4 days immersing myself in the latest of young pianistic talent, as well as the latest in piano technology. Each merits its own entry, so that's what I'm going to do!
The e-Competition, based in Minnesota, started in 2000 with the idea of embracing fully the possibilities of technology in the service of good old-fashioned piano playing of the great traditions begun over 300 years ago. Based on Yamaha's extensive development of the concert grand piano CFIIIS and their parallel development of electronic recording of MIDI information, the Disklavier is an incredible 21st Century piano. Full disclosure requires me to say that I'm a Yamaha artist, but having had a hand (actually, two hands) in the development of the CFIIIS during my time in Paris, I feel I've made an investment in Yamaha - both professional and personal.
The e-Competition's screening auditions take full advantage of the Disklavier technology, and I believe they are the only competition to do so, at least currently. My suspicion is that, as economic times continue to get difficult, especially for the arts, the possibilities of using the Disklavier will become more and more tempting for our very conservative little artistic niche. The technology has advanced past a critical tipping point, and any continuing mechanical concerns with using the Disklavier are now on par with the constant and expected mechanical concerns of using an instrument as complex as a grand piano - tuning, voicing, pedal regulation, escape regulation, etc.
In the company of three wonderful colleagues - Rees Allison, Stanislav Pochekin, and the e-Competition director Alexander Braginsky - I spent a happy 4 days listening to over 60 pianists perform 25 minute programs. While we worked with very little pause from 10am to 8pm every day, the process was much less tiring than similar processes have been for me at other events. This is the first unexpected observation about this particular experience: listening to auditions with the Disklavier was much less tiring than I expected.
In the past, I have participated in juries where auditions were held live, and others where applicants sent in audio recordings. My memories of both processes are broadly painted over with one feeling - fatigue!
In the case of live auditions, we jury members went to the contestants - we traveled around the world, over a period of weeks, setting up physically and mentally in many different cities, battling jet-lag, food issues and strange beds! We spent a substantial amount of time ... waiting - for planes, for taxis, for contestants, for audiences.
With the Disklavier, we were able to leave the traveling to a single coordinator, who worked with local Yamaha staff and technicians to set up the taping of the auditions. Once auditions had taken place - in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing - the recordings were collected together in NY, where our jury group was able to hear them in quick succession.
For myself, it was a dream job for 4 days. I got up in the morning, dressed, grabbed some breakfast as I headed out to the Metro-North train station. The hour-long ride gave me ample opportunity to read the newspaper, look over some mail and grab a quick snooze before stepping onto the Grand Central platform in NYC. A brisk walk to the Yamaha showroom gave me a good alibi for another day passing without doing any swimming! I checked my pedometer - 2000 aerobic steps one way, already better than the number of steps the average couch potato American takes in a day.
By the third day, I was fantasizing about having an office job, timing my short drive from home to the train station parking lot with only 2 minutes to spare, lining myself up on the train platform at the exact spot where the train doors would stop and open, my pre-paid ticket ready in my wallet. Unfortunately, the third day was a Saturday, and the 8:04 ran only on weekdays. Fortunately, the weekend train arrived 20 minutes later, which still got me to Yamaha on time, albeit with a brisker walk.
Soon after we began, it became clear how efficient this would be. There was no waiting for the contestant to walk to the piano, sit down, adjust the bench height, wipe the keyboard, find their concentration before starting to play. Electronic editing had eliminated all of this before we arrived. The timing between pieces was also edited, so that we could move on to the next piece as quickly as we wanted. On the flip side, whenever a break was necessary, we could put everything on hold. The fact that the performances were not live allowed us the freedom to stretch, have quick discussions, signal for help, without the worry of disturbing the performer's concentration.
The Disklavier playback took place in the acoustically designed showroom, on a piano that had been prepared by the best technicians Yamaha has to offer. The performances were recorded around the world in similar spaces, on similarly prepared pianos. Besides the MIDI Disklavier information, the recording also included a hi-def video, synched with the playback. In the showroom, the image of the pianist - seen in the standard profile-view first preferred by Liszt - was projected on a large screen just behind the piano. As a result, the pianist appeared life-size, with the keyboard of the Disklavier seeming to project out of the screen as a strange 3-D extension of the keyboard in the video. It took very little time to adjust to the dichotomy of seeing a 2-D visual "performing" in 3-D acoustics.
Comparing this listening experience to listening to performances recorded on CD reminded me of the different set of challenges I experienced listening to auditions submitted by audio recordings. It is harder to stay focused on a performance over a long period when only one of the senses - in this case, hearing - is involved. With the synchronized video, enhanced by the illusion of life-sized presence, the playback on Disklavier became much closer to a multi-sensory experience of a concert, which allowed the inevitable lapses in aural concentration to be bridged by the visual stimulus, and vice-versa.
Another challenge with CD auditions is the quality of the audio reproduction itself. If the recording is captured with inadequate tools, and especially when the audio playback is on a less-than-audiophile equipment, the reduced fidelity narrows the sensory field of the listener. One's attention turns more and more to minute details that actually have little bearing on the overall performance - a buzz, an intonation problem, a missed note become irritations that distract. Researchers have discovered this same difference between driving while talking to a passenger and talking on a cell-phone - lack of fidelity and focus on a single sensory input. It makes it much more dangerous to have a long conversation on the phone while driving than with your passenger. Using CDs to screen contestants might also cause more accidents!
The Disklavier experience solved many of these issues. Besides the video component's influence, the greatest advantage over recorded performances is the fact that the Disklavier is producing actual piano sound. The richness of overtones, the minute and multiple differences of color, the effects of the pedal, the enveloping sensation of a carefully designed acoustic in the hall. All of these allow the listener to move freely between the overall picture and the minute detail, the freedom which is the richness of a live performance.

There were some technical issues with the Disklavier technology. For the very first session, the right pedal was not properly regulated, causing it to descend less than what the pianist originally executed. Over the course of 6 contestants, we judges were alternately impressed, horrified and quizzical about the strangely dry approach of these players. Impressed by the daring and the clarity of the playing and attention to articulation, which was actually no more than just hearing the bare bones of the playing without pedaling. Horrified at some of the obvious inaccuracies revealed by the lack of pedal cover. And then quizzical when it seemed that the piano-playing traditions of 200 years had suddenly been forgotten by this new generation! We took a break while the Yamaha technician did some emergency regulations and computer debugging. When we regrouped, the pedal issue had been resolved, making such a big difference that we decided to relisten to the candidates with a fresh ear. We were all reassured by the results - in fact, one of those six players made it to the final 24 contestants.
A few contestants pushed the Disklavier to its technological limits, where it concerned repetition and controlling slow releases. The successful execution of both of these elements depends on finding the sweet spot - for repetition, the sweet spot where the key's escape mechanism re-engages; for controlled release, the sweet spot where the damper just begins to touch the string. These spots are different on every piano, and different on every key. They even evolve over the short course of a single performance. The Disklavier is not designed to be able to sense these individual spots and track their changes. Ironically, this means that the pianist who is extremely sensitive and is playing right around these spots will not hear his performance reproduced well on a Disklavier. To be truthful, very few of the pianists danced on this particular edge (more on that in the next blog), and those who did were able to project their daring and control on other levels that were also evident to us. It is, however, one of the remaining issues with the Disklavier, and reproducing pianos in general.

I've had the opportunity to make recordings for Disklavier, and I've been impressed with the technology, even though I could list all of the defaults and challenges with the instrument. In this prolonged exposure to such high-level playing, I was even more impressed with the overall possibilities that Disklavier allows. Certainly at the highest professional level, the Disklavier combines the best of live performance with the best of recording and reproducing technology. Other competitions should take note!

Next blog, I will write about the overall impression with the performances I heard.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Secretary of the Arts?

This is not a political website, but I have wondered at times whether that is a good thing.
After having seen Yo-Yo Ma, Itzach Perlman, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill perform John Williams at the Inauguration Ceremony, I believe it is perhaps time to break down that wall keeping politics out of the arts.
The arts are, after all, the most political of statements. A work of art is a statement, a reflection of the times and an opinion of it. If musicians have rarely been drawn directly into the life of politics, it is perhaps not so much that art has nothing to say about politics, but that politics has rarely risen to the level of discourse of the arts.
There are politics in the internal working of the arts - an organization like a Symphony Orchestra or a major opera house does not survive without political connections and board members who are politically connected. But rarely do the works of art that are presented by such organizations make overt political statements.
Mendelssohn said "It's not that music is too imprecise for words, but too precise". We could paraphrase this to say that “it’s not that music is not activist enough to be political, but too activist.” We see this most clearly in the extreme cases of totalitarian regimes, who knew of the power of music and tried to control it - see the heavy-hand of the Stalin regime, or the cultivation of Wagner’s music by the Nazis, or the crackdown on Western music during the Cultural Revolution in China.
But given the abstract nature of music, it’s ability to symbolize without reference to events, time or place, it is particularly suited to promoting the most essential aspects of politics while leaving alone what is most banal. That most essential element is the engagement, the communication of spirit and energy. Music can empower people, engage them in activities they would otherwise not warm to, and forge connections between individuals and groups that would otherwise never connect. This is the essence of politics, and especially of our democratic kind of politics, which require the involvement of the enlightened citizen.
And the most banal element that music leaves for others is the detail of law, the compromises, the actual materials of guidance that politicians fight for.
What we have seen in this last election was the triumph not so much of one ideology over another, because the actual ideologies of the man who won the Presidency have not been thoroughly expressed yet, have not been forced into clarity through specific policy decisions. The Left thought they had one of their own, then became disappointed with his supposed veer to the center. The Right cried alarmist warnings before crossing party lines en masse to vote for him.
Instead of ideological triumphs, what we really witnessed was a triumph of activism and involvement over laissez-faire and spectator government. More people became involved in the campaign, and in the process became involved in the actual substance of the law, the actual questions of how to govern, how to manage a society and its disparate needs and desires. However President Obama’s policies turn out, his presidency will be a triumph if he succeeds in engaging the citizens for a longer period than just the months leading up to the election.
Music can play a large role in this fortification of the spirit, this bridging of communication gaps, this engagement of the individual to the common causes of society. While it would be silly to suggest that the audience members of any particular concert would leave the concert hall to head directly to a local charity to sign up for volunteer work, or embark on a community organization project, or rush down to Washington to wave signs at a rally, it is not so far-fetched to imagine that people who take the time to participate in live concerts, who leave the hall in a euphoria of sound and ideas, would buy the local paper and spend a few minutes perusing it for information on events in their town, calling a friend to propose an evening out, and then going to the library to browse the history section for a book on the history of Russia. And it is this kind of engagement that, in the long-term, will create a more engaged political individual, one who is more aware of the world around them, and who eventually might even decide to do something to shape their neighborhood, or more.
You may have seen a petition circulating on-line, promoting an idea attributed to Quincy Jones for creating a cabinet-level position of Secretary of the Arts. I signed this petition, and while I don’t have utopian visions of such a position being created soon - no more than the creation of a Secretary of Peace - I do believe the conversation is important.
The symbolism of classical music is easy to create, and I do feel that the current President is aware of that. He has said he wants to bring jazz and classical artists to the White House, to make the White House the people’s house. Not only is this action easy to take, it would also be personally pleasant for the President!
So please sign the petition, and look for a concert you can go to in your neighborhood. Keep your eyes open for the next White House concert, and tell your congressman or woman that you want to support the arts. You will be changing the politics around you, for the better.