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.