Oct 17th 2008

Danger: piano can take over your life

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

The late Glenn Gould made some powerful enemies in the music world when he decided to record Bach's Goldberg Variations at a slow tempo. He also made music history. The Canadian virtuoso pianist was tired of hearing the same old Goldberg played to perfection by dozens of other pianists, so he decided to "compose" while performing.

This would be something like a bishop throwing in a few personal anecdotes while reading the Gospel at High Mass. The traditionalist music congregation was outraged. Most music-lovers, however, flocked to Gould's fresh approach, and it is now considered a classic recording.

Gould went on to astound audiences with his own tempos and dynamics in other compositions of the standard repertoire as he pursued his concert career. At one performance with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, Bernstein turned to the audience and personally disavowed Gould's interpretation. But he said he had reluctantly agreed to perform it just as the pianist insisted.

This was a back-handed tribute to the young Gould's commitment to an ideal, despite how it ruffled the fur of the great lion Bernstein.

Gould has talked about this mischievous approach on camera, and to the end of his life remained blissfully unconcerned with the controversy it caused in the music world. He knew he had something here.

Gould's inventive tempos had a personal impact on me. I had long wanted to continue my piano studies, which I had abandoned in my university years in the face of too much talented competition. When Gould legitimized the slow-paced Goldberg, I ran out and bought the music and got to work on the opening Aria. It flowed perhaps less well than Gould's but well enough for my ears. I have never tried to speed it up.

Gould thus gets credit for reviving my love affair with the piano and eventually landing me at the London International Piano Competition - although not as a contestant.

I have found more satisfaction as a piano "groupie", working with some of the world's great teachers and players in a non-performing capacity. In a way, the piano has taken over my life. I served nine years on the board of the London competition and am now helping the International Piano Academy in Dongo, Lake Como, Italy, with its written materials.

Keyboard masters I have encountered in this work are a diverse group -- some relaxed, some downright paranoid.

The late Rosalyn Tureck, known as "The first lady of Bach", had a bit of of the diva in her, dressing in colorful scarves and a big, black sombrero as I met her a few times for tea at the Dorchester Hotel in London. I was editing some of her essays while she was at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, in the 1990s.

Rosalyn was a friend of the late writer William F. Buckley and graciously performed Bach at the Buckley home for his family and friends. But she also harbored self-doubt. Prior to a performance she would lock herself in her dressing room for an hour to meditate.

In the afternoon before to one of her recitals in Italy, I made the mistake of whispering something to a stagehand nearby as she was running through her program. "Silence," she shouted at us without missing a note. "The artist is rehearsing!" We tip-toed into the next room.

At the other extreme was the German businessman-pianist Theo Lieven, founder of the Vobis computer company, for whom I organized concerts a few years ago in London. Theo frequently performed with full orchestra, including once under conductor Zubin Mehta. At one of the London events he insisted on demonstrating some new software on his laptop backstage as the orchestra tuned up. He apparently had nerves of steel. At the last moment, he snapped his laptop shut, strode onstage and attacked a Mozart piano concerto. His performance was note-perfect.

Theo went on to create the International Piano Foundation at Cadenabbia, on Lake Como, a dream of an establishment that provided nine months of room and board and 24-hour access to practice rooms in a plush villa for half a dozen hand-picked young pianists. Director William Grant Naboré, himself a virtuoso and much-recorded artist, was always on hand as coach, and such piano stars as Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Leon Fleischer, Dmitri Bashkirov, Murray Perahia, Fou Ts'ong and Menahem Pressler conducted master classes there.

The Foundation was the forerunner of the International Piano Academy at Dongo, Lake Como, Italy, now presided by Martha Argerich and still directed with great flair by Naboré, and with a stellar list of master class teachers.

In the nerves category, somewhere between Rosalyn Tureck and Theo Lieven is Piotr Anderszweski, one of Europe's most promising young talents and a former student at Naboré's Foundation. I sat with him recently in his dressing room at the piano festival in La Roque d'Anthéron in the South of France. He made no secret of his pre-recital anxieties, hurrying to his practice room after our chat. Outside his door, I could hear him racing through his Bach Partitas. Two hours later he had to do three encores to calm the adoring audience.

But I gradually realized that the real drama in the piano world comes at the international competitions where young hopefuls perform for jaded judges, some of whom (except in London) are allowed to grade their own students - an obvious conflict of interest. I have seen judges write off competing youngsters for dragging a tempo, a heavy left hand or a few seconds of foot-tapping. Judges' decisions on who survives are often made on a razor's edge of personal taste.

The competition world keeps going despite dubious ethics, money troubles and jury disputes. Part of the current momentum comes from determined teen-agers flooding in from China, Taiwan and Japan and frightening the daylights out of the more casual Europeans and Americans.

Jury arguments often mar these contests, as happened when the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski was awarded second prize in London a few years ago. One jury member, Geoffrey Norris, refused to endorse the result and resigned with a flourish. Trpceski then went on to a successful recording career while the top prizewinner, Finnish pianist Antti Siirala, opted to go his own way, entering the Leeds and Dublin competitions, and winning first prize at both.

These achievements make Antti one of the most acclaimed young performers in Europe. He went on to play at about 75 recitals and concerts in Europe, gathering fans along the way. Today he divides his time between teaching in Helsinki and performing primarily in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Like Glenn Gould he does not relish playing the same standard pieces night after night on an endless schedule of recitals. "I've never been into repeating myself too much," he says. "Remember, pianists are people as well."


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