Saturday, January 2, 2010

Brace Yourselves!

For those who do not yet already know, 2010 is the bicentennial of the birth of Frédéric Chopin; and, according to a post by Larry Rohter to the ArtsBeat blog for The New York Times, Poland wasted little time in getting the honors for its native son off to a roaring start:

Poland officially began commemorations of the bicentennial of the birth of its most celebrated composer, Frederic Chopin, on Friday with a ceremony at his birthplace, Zelazowa Wola, about 50 miles west of Warsaw, and a concert in the capital featuring the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. More than 2,000 events, nearly half of them to be held outside Poland, are planned during the bicentennial, including films, jazz performances, exhibitions and the 16th annual Chopin International Competition. Warsaw will also host a Chopin festival that begins this week with a performance by the Chinese pianist Lang Lang; Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich will be featured performers later in the year.

Personally, I see this event as, at best, a mixed blessing. There is no doubt that Chopin holds a commanding place in the piano repertoire, if not in the overall canon of classical music, at least as far as the nineteenth century is concerned. There is also no doubt that his influence extends further than many of us might think, as one of the anecdotes from Robin D. G. Kelley's biography of Thelonious Monk illustrates. Furthermore, Monk is hardly alone in this respect; think of Bud Powell as one of many other examples.

Nevertheless, Chopin's commanding presence may also be the reason why his music may be badly performed with greater frequency than that of any other composer. This abuse comes not just from the hands of students (both reluctant and well-intentioned) and mediocre professionals but also from many who have achieved established positions and often won prizes. San Francisco has had more than its share of events that cast Chopin in a poor light (if any light at all). One of them even involved one of the featured pianists at the Warsaw Festival, Lang Lang; and I suspect that, if I were to review all of the pieces I have written on both The Rehearsal Studio and about Chopin performances, there would likely be an approximate tie between the positive and the negative.

Like it or not, Chopin is going to take a real beating this year; so the best we can do is to try to focus our attention on those sources that make some effort to place his music in a suitable perspective. Let me first suggest that we all take the trouble to examine his entry in Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective. This is only three pages; and about one of those pages amounts to German source texts, which are then translated. So this is hardly a matter of wallowing with those who chose to bad-mouth the guy. I would then recommend avoiding the excesses of any all-Chopin programs, preferring, instead, seeking out those that might inform us of Chopin's position in the "network of influences," involving both those who influenced him and those who were so influenced. I conjecture that those performers who take the latter approach are likely to listen to Chopin with greater acuity and are therefore likely to provide experiences through which our own listening will be enhanced. It should not take much for us to get through this year as long as we remember the basic rule that friends do not let friends listen to Chopin played badly!

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