Tonight's CSO soloist prompted comments overheard from friends, colleagues, and random audience members:
"That's scary." "There's just no one like that." "Do you think he does anything else?" "That look in his eyes, that explains it." "This is the best I've heard." "I'll remember this one for years."
Taken together, these observations describe a person and an event. The person is totally dedicated to his craft, and his performance and even his physical presence set him apart from normal folks who walk the streets. The performance is mesmerizing, drawing the hall into the center of the stage. The person and the performance combine to represent the true meaning of live music.
Comments about and criticism of Yevgeny Kissin's playing last night are almost irrelevant. After reading the above paragraphs, it should be obvious that only a true master of his craft could cause such reactions. I might add that Kissin does all of this without unnatural theatrics to dazzle the eye. And from what I've seen of him before, I expect tonight's and tomorrow night's shows to be events as well.
Without the competition of an orchestra during Brahms' first concerto, Kissin's encores provided the best chance to examine him. The first, a Chopin b-flat scherzo, was about 10 minutes long! Hardly a lollipop. The second was a minute-long wink to the audience to go home and go to sleep. I read that the last time he played a solo recital here, there were encores totaling nearly an hour.
The first question that comes to my mind is stamina. How can one play at such a level for so long? From what we see around the hall, Kissin plays a LOT of piano when he is not on stage. Might this explain it? To perform under pressure for that many minutes and even hours, you must practice under pressure for hours. He does not "doodle" at the keyboard. His practicing sounds like performance. Of course, for someone like Kissin who plays more than a hundred concerts a year, you don't give yourself a chance to get out of performance shape!
Then, consistency from night to night. I have not heard Kissin less than razor-sharp. I haven't read accounts of that either. What motivates someone to reach for that level every time they step out on stage? For this I have no answer. He is not a performer who wears his heart on his sleeve, so I'm not prepared to say that a sheer love of playing is responsible. It must be there, but is that at the core of his mastery? Many soloists love playing but they haven't exactly dusted all their corners in a while. Why does he? Perhaps it's respect for his audience: not just one "audience", but thousands of people who come for a real event every night. Does he dare disappoint the few young pianists who have come to get a first look at a phenomenon?
That makes me wonder, as well, just how healthy it might be as a youngster to idolize a performer like Kissin. Surely his gifts are obvious, but will every child with extraordinary gifts develop the same combination of endless work and limitless motivation? And should they?
The closest parallel I could come up with in sports is Tiger Woods, because of the same basic factors: work and motivation. Tiger, unlike some of his peers, has dedicated himself to his sport since childhood. He also, by all accounts, has worked consistently since that time to improve and maintain his level. He has certain concrete milestones to chase (records), but I suspect that that is not his sole motivation. Does that one motivation work every single day, year after year?
The answer, I believe, is to be found only in the whole-life view. Kissin, like Tiger, has found fulfillment doing what he does best. On some days, the joy of playing is enough to prompt several hours of good work. Other days, it's an upcoming deadline such as new repertoire to be performed. Still others, a long-term goal suffices to get the work juices flowing. And finally, when all else fails, routine: what would a day be without six hours of piano? Many of us are afraid to face a day without coffee. Or our favorite TV show. Is it for us to say that coffee and television are be more "natural" for everyone? Kissin made a combination of choices long ago and they have served him well. I hope they continue to do so. And I hope that we benefit for decades to come.
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