Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Training?

There was no doubting the capabilities of the six students who contributed to the Piano Department Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. However, either this has turned out to be a month of "too much music;" or there was something disconcerting about last night's event that had to do with more than listening burnout. Reviewing the program this morning, I realized that there was one question that continued to dig into the back of my mind: Did the evening have to consist exclusively of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt? Even it is a "truth universally acknowledged" that one cannot make a career as a concert pianist without a firm command of these three composers, is there no room for a bit more diversity, particularly within an academy where, by all rights, it should be "safe" to explore lesser known regions of the repertoire? The San Francisco Conservatory clearly encourages such expeditions, at least if we are to consider, as a case in point, the all-Hungarian concert given two weeks ago in the Chamber Music Masters series. On the other hand the imaginativeness of that evening must have had a lot to do with the presence of visiting violist Kim Kashkashian, the featured artist of the evening; and diversity of repertoire has played a major role in the progress of Kaskashian's career.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, simply because the would-be concert pianist cannot necessarily engage the same career-planning strategy as the would-be concert violist. However, this set me to thinking about just what that "piano strategy" has become and whether or not "serious" career planning could be as much a part of the problem as a path to the solution. Recall that, when I wrote about a Senior Recital last week, I introduced the name of only one professional pianist, Alexander Toradze. I had mentioned that Toradze "only won the Silver Medal in the Fifth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1977)," invoking "only" to emphasize that, in a "business" with so few opportunities, anything other than first place may not count for very much (and first place may not count for more for very long). On the other hand anyone who saw the documentary of that Competition on PBS could not have forgotten the electrifying bravura approach that Toradze brought to his performance of Igor Stravinsky's piano arrangement of three scenes from his Pétrouchka ballet. Fortunately, some agent was enterprising enough to arrange for a telecast in which Toradze upped the ante with a solo piano transcription of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. Whether or not this was a key part of the strategy through which Toradze is now, in general, better known than Gold Medalist Vladimir Viardo may be debated; but Toradze's career path was certainly not paved strictly by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt!

Nevertheless, it is just as certain that the Cliburn Competition played a major role in getting that paving process under way in the first place; so my own discontent led me to seek out, once again, a post from March of 2007 entitled "The Competition versus the Music," which was written in a similarly disconcerted state following a recital by Ingrid Fliter, winner of the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award. This award is not based on a competition. It is based on judges; but those judges attend public recitals, presumably under the cloak of anonymity, and grant the award on the basis of such "field experience." This led me to speculate that, even if they were not performing in an explicit competition, up-and-coming pianists might feel obliged to treat every performance as if they were "playing for the judges," from which I then raised the question of whether accountability to such judges might, at least sometimes, find itself in conflict with accountability to the music itself. The rest of my post tried to elaborate what I meant by that latter accountability and explain why, in Fliter's case, it had been trumped by "playing for the judges," even if the judges had already granted their prize. To get back to the theme of last night's recital, the point of departure for my argument about Fliter was the program she had prepared to the evening:

Her program was a collection of works with challenges that would impress competition judges: Beethoven's "Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme," the Schubert A Major sonata written in the final year of his life (one of three extraordinary piano sonatas that left a wake of confusion for many decades after Schubert's death), and a Chopin assortment of familiar pieces, each with its own technical demands.

Nevertheless, the brunt of my argument was not directed at Beethoven and Chopin (or Schubert or the "absent" Liszt). Rather, looking back on that argument, I realize that the "strategic value" of such composers puts them in the same category as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the context in which Henry Miller wrote about him in "With Edgar Varèse in the Gobi Desert" in his essay collection, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare:

No one asks you to throw Mozart out the window. Keep Mozart. Cherish him. Keep Moses too, and Buddha and Laotse and Christ. Keep them in your heart. But make room for the others, the coming ones, the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes.

I would push Miller's injunction one step further. I would suggest that any pianist today can only keep Mozart (not to mention Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Schubert) in his or her heart through an awareness of those "scratching on the window-panes," regardless of whether those windows look out over the nineteenth century (e.g., Jan Ladislav Dušek), twentieth (e.g., György Ligeti), or those who will make their presence known in the near future. Last night Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were solidly in the fingers of six clearly talented students; but these students have yet to learn how to keep these composers in their respective hearts.

No comments: