Here is the final post from my Carnegie series. Having previously written primarily about the program, this one is mostly about the hall itself — and while that means it falls somewhat outside the boundaries of what I normally (…) blog about, this wasn’t difficult to write. It’s a little homage to one of my favorite places anywhere.
Here, for the edification (?) and enjoyment (??) of my increasingly restive reader(s), is the second post I’ve contributed to Carnegie’s blog. It primarily addresses the question of how this program was put together. While I’ve written about this topic before here and here, I haven’t previously written about the majority of these pieces (the Janacek being the sole exception), which is to say that it should be neither more nor less interesting than any of the other thrilling prose which finds its way here.
The recital tour I’m in the midst of comes to Carnegie Hall (you know, that old place) on January 21st. As the date approaches, I’ll be writing several pieces about my preparation for the concert. The first addresses the question of how one works on a piece after having been through the process of recording it — which is the case with two of the four pieces on the program — and can be read here; I’m linking rather than cutting and pasting so that my reader(s?) can enjoy the benefits of Carnegie Hall’s Nice Formatting and Correct Usage of Accents.
OK. I’ve cleaned up the house — and the house needed a lot of cleaning, thank you too-much-time-on-your-hands internet hackers — and I’ve refound my blogging feet. While I look for the corresponding shoes, I thought I’d post the text of some remarks I made this past April at the Harvard memorial for Leon Kirchner, the American master who died on September 17th last year:
I first met Leon at the Gardner Museum in Boston, 10 years ago. I was playing his 5 Pieces for Piano and we were meeting in advance of the concert so that he could hear me play them. The 5 Pieces are based on poems of Emily Dickinson, the last of which begins “There came a wind…” The poem and the corresponding music are powerful, authoritative, filled with conflict and turmoil: in other words, just like Leon. Over the next 10 years, our relationship had many guises: mentor and student; composer and performer (and extremely grateful dedicatee); occasionally, sparring partners; and ultimately, friendship, but through it all, those qualities — authority and turmoil — were always at the forefront, and through them, and him, I learned a great deal about what type of musician I wanted to become.
While Leon was brilliant and extremely clear-headed, I don’t think he was ever much concerned with neatness, or order. In fact, in his own music, and in the way he heard music, I think a certain messiness — the kind that suggests complication and contradiction — was much more interesting to him.
Great music is great not merely because of the notes themselves, but because of what is behind the notes, inside them, and especially between them. And in between its notes, Leon’s music is unbelievably rich with emotional meaning. Filled with sentiment without ever being sentimental, tightly-wound yet also generous, often brilliant, but absolutely never superficial. Leon’s music-making had these same qualities, and some of my happiest memories of him involve sitting with him in his apartment, listening to old performances of his — the last three Mozart symphonies, Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Brahms g minor Piano Quartet, Beethoven’s 4th and Brahms’ 2nd concerti with Peter Serkin, a musical kindred spirit, and of course, six decades worth of his own music. The music-making was filled with the kind of insight that one associates with a great composer, but what struck me more was the joy and the vibrancy of what I was hearing — even over the speakers, it was alive. More memorable still than the playing was the sight of him listening — entranced, rapt, visibly moved. He had been hearing these pieces for sixty, seventy, in some cases probably eighty years, and yet their place in his life as expressions of joy, consolation, and catharsis was only growing firmer.
Every day when I sit at the piano, I think about the intensity of Leon’s attachment to music as an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual pursuit. I won’t ever match it, but in just trying, I hope I’m paying appropriate homage to one of the most impressive, complex, and human musicians I’ll ever know.
My third and final contribution to the panel.
To perfect, or rather agonizingly prolong, the tortured analogy, perhaps this has been my mid-blog crisis affair. That ought to mean I’ll be back posting here, with renewed enthusiasm, and soon.
Here’s my second contribution to the ArtsJournal project.
For my readers to decide: is this Atonement for my three months of silence, or Making It Worse through blog-infidelity?
Since the frequency of my posting here is so stunningly high, I thought it was time to seek out a new forum for my thoughts (and I use the term loosely).
Kidding aside, this week I’m excited to be a guest panelist on Amanda Ameer’s blog at ArtsJournal.com. Amanda, a publicist, has invited four of us from different sides of the musical world to discuss the 21st century expectation that artists distinguish themselves in ways not directly connected to their art. Is this good or bad? Relevant or irrelevant to the art itself? Contributing to the concert experience or detracting from it?
Interesting questions, I think. My initial post can be found here, Amanda’s blog, with all of posts on this topic (plus all of her other posts) here. I think things should get interesting: stay tuned.
On the Wigmore Hall’s current podcast, I talk a bit about the first movement of the C Major Sonata and the second movement of the A Major Sonata, and play some illustrative examples. (My first experiment with such multi-tasking!)
For now, you can listen via the Wigmore’s site, but I’ll post the clips here soon as well.
Yesterday, my Schubert CD had its U.S. release, and not entirely coincidentally, I began a run of performances of the A Major Sonata, this one in a house concert in London. Schubert, once again, is looming large.
Not that he had stopped doing so, really. But it was wonderful to be reminded yesterday that you can be overwhelmed by what you think you know. There are certain pieces which give the impression, at their outset, of embarking on a journey. The Schubert A Major is one of them, and the listener (and player, who is hopefully also listening) is richly rewarded for making the trip, for it takes off in unexpected — shocking, really - directions, and leaves us, in the profoundest sense, somewhere other than where we began.
Schubert died at the age of 31, a mere two years older than I currently am. (!) As I’ve said, I neither know what “maturity” means, nor think I possess it, but the astonishing development that took place in this young man’s final years has brought the subject to mind again. (Just to be clear, I’m not for a moment suggesting that maturity might be all that separates me from Schubert: there is the small matter of his genius.) Many have said that Schubert’s premature death is the greatest loss to have befallen music; I’m unsure. Were the feverish intensity and celestial lyricism that characterize Schubert’s final year a step along a path towards an unfathomed musical language? Or were those qualities available to him only because he knew the end was near, and because he was quickly drowning in his own unhappiness?
We’ll never know, of course. What I do believe firmly is that what distinguishes late Schubert from any other music is not the feelings themselves — many have suffered greatly, after all. Nor is it is compositional ability — great as it was, it did not exceed that of Mozart or Beethoven. What I believe is without precedent and remains unequaled is Schubert’s access to his inner life — his subconscious, even. Even the twentieth century failed to produce a howl as primal as the one that disrupts the songfulness of the A Major Sonata’s second movement. Is this, perhaps, maturity — an awareness of what lies beneath so absolute that it can be put on paper? (Again, genius surely helps.) Or perhaps the meaning of maturity can be found in the open-heartedness of the last movement — music of pure generosity. After Schubert’s very soul is crushed in the slow movement, where exactly does this come from?
I am perpetually wary of drawing connections between a composer’s life and work. (Exhibit A: Heiligenstadt Testament — Beethoven’s Second Symphony.) But I cannot hear the A Major Sonata (or Schwanengesang, or the String Quintet, or the C Major Symphony, or or or…) without being made aware of how much pain Schubert must have endured. Someone once said to me that Schubert’s music is sad when it is in minor keys, and tragic when it is in major keys, and it’s true — even the music that is consoling contains a knowledge of something terrible.
I am unwilling to say that I am grateful to Schubert for enduring whatever it was that made these masterworks possible. But for their existence I am deeply grateful. This is not merely music you listen to; it resides inside you, speaks to you, evolves with you. Please: stop reading, and go listen to Schubert.
The other day, for the umpteenth time, I removed from my bookshelf My Life and Music, Artur Schnabel’s sometimes charming, sometimes ornery, always insightful series of lectures on his musical experiences. I opened the book — truly at random — to an exchange in the question-answer portion, which purportedly concerns Schnabel’s student (and my teacher) Leon Fleisher:
Voice: I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing your pupil, the young Mr. X, this summer and I would like to have your opinion of his work?
Mr. Schnabel: He is a highly gifted boy. He plays, for his age, amazingly well. The real difficulties for him lie in his future, for it is more difficult to retain fame than to gain it. I feel certain of his capacity to meet them.
Voice: He seems very much more mature than his seventeen years warrant, though.
Mr. Schnabel: Oh, I wouldn’t use that term: mature. It would in his case sound like an objection, almost a condemnation. He plays well, convincingly, with an already manifest personality of his own. His type of talent is not too common. He has imagination and courage. He will try things and face the risk of failure. That is nowadays a rather rare quality. Courage is suppressed by the pursuit of safety.
I am reprinting this delightfully on-the-mark analysis and prediction not because (or not merely because) I take pleasure in how on-the-mark it is. Rather, I’m very struck by what Schnabel has to say about maturity. I’ve quite often had the experience of being told that I seem mature, and feeling sort of queasy in response: it’s the queasiness that comes not just from receiving a compliment you don’t feel you deserve, but from feeling a little demeaned by the compliment. An extra layer of queasiness is provided by my inability to locate the precise source of the initial queasiness. (The final layer of queasiness arrives with my guilt over feeling queasy at what was, after all, meant as a compliment, but that is — counting generously — only tangentially related to the subject of this post.)
Schnabel — who did not mince words and did not, as far as I can tell, waste energy feeling queasy about things — cuts right to the heart of the matter. It is interesting, and revealing, to hear him place such value on having “a manifest personality of [one’s] own,” as we tend to associate Schnabel with the virtue of textual fidelity, and this is a nice reminder that textual fidelity is not, in fact, a virtue, in the way that eating brussels sprouts or taking in stray ferrets are virtues, but rather, when the text involved is a timeless masterpiece, a window into a world of possibility — a world where those with manifest personalities have a vast canvass on which to (forgive me) manifest them.
(Elsewhere in the book, responding to a question about his approach to music, he says, “Love has to be the starting point — love of music. It is one of my firmest convictions, that love always produces some knowledge, while knowledge only rarely produces something similar to love.” Perhaps, rather than persist with this blog, I should acquire the rights from the publisher, and simply copy Schnabel, line by line, in regular installments.)
These two processes, coming ever closer to the music that we play, and coming closer to ourselves — which, as Schnabel suggests, can and ought to occur in tandem — strike me as the basis of artistic growth. Put another way, they are both about paring down: removing the excess which clouds our vision, and stands in the way of self-knowledge, and thus, real expression.
On that journey, there are no short cuts. Some people may travel down those roads faster than others, but there is no substitute for the passage of time. And that is why, when I hear the word “mature” ascribed to me, or any other comparatively young musician, I wonder what it means. My nervous suspicion is that it implies that the person gives unimpeachable performances — performances in which holes cannot be punched, in which the performer has resorted to easy answers, because he cannot bear unanswered questions.
Schnabel often said that there is “no safe conduct to wisdom,” and these, as much as anything he ever said, strike me as words to live by. The reason that performing, in addition to all of the other things it is, is frightening, is that done properly, it exposes one’s weaknesses along with the rest of one’s qualities. Of all the memorable performances I have heard, none has been memorable because it was perfect; rather, those performances remain etched in my mind because nothing was hidden from view. With any performer, positive and negative qualities come together to make a unique whole, but no attribute has the potential to move quite so much as doubt. (Or: what moves us is not the sense that the performer has the answers, but rather an awareness that he is asking the questions.) Whatever maturity is, it is not the acquisition of certainty, and it certainly does not come from ignoring the questions.
In my own unsafe journey towards wisdom, or maturity, I am holding on tightly to my questions, and to my vulnerabilities; or, to paraphrase Schnabel once again, I am suppressing safety in the pursuit of courage.
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