Big hair: Classical pianism meets show business

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 06.05.2016

Many young pianists, increasingly desperate to draw attention to themselves, are resorting to new levels of flamboyance at the keyboard – sometimes in their interpretations, more often in excessive showboating antics. It would seem that everyone wants to be a Lang Lang.

Lang Lang, as seen by the author Michael Johnson

As young graduates spill out of the conservatories and jostle in the music scene, the trend threatens to get worse.

Although audiences seem to respond and even buy expensive tickets, the gymnastics detract from the musical experience for serious concert-goers. It might be time for music critics to call these players to account and tell them to let the music do the work.

Big hair is now in vogue.

I recently saw and heard the young Russian sensation Daniil Trifonov perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to near-perfection at Boston’s Symphony Hall. But his bouncing on the piano bench, his outrageous hair-flicks and his swoons and spasms spoiled what would have been a five-star performance.

Daniil Trifonov, by Michael Johnson

Khatia Buniatishvilli, the little terror from Tbilisi who appeared on French television recently, has developed Lang-like contortions, augmented with hair that falls over her face, then whips back as she hits a dramatic chord. You can almost hear the whoosh.

Both these rising stars fashion their hair style to fall into the eyes and enable the most dramatic back-flick.

Khatia Buniatishvilli, by Michael Johnson




Lang Lang of course has been crossing the line of dignified performance for years. His eye makeup, his wild hair and his winks at the audience detract from what is often high-level pianism. In this video of the same Prokofiev concerto he can be seen watching the audience (1:27) as conductor Simon Rattle shoots him a reproving glance. He turns back to the piano but his arms continue to rotate, climaxing with a backhand throw that almost clips his own forehead (9:24). The music, however, is sublime.

Lang Lang Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3 SD


Reining in over-exuberant players can be a delicate matter; some are displaying their most intimate emotions. The late Charles Rosen, writing 15 years ago, gave the offenders the benefit of the doubt. “The gestures of the pianist are inevitably a visual translation of the musical sense,” he said in his book “Piano Notes”. “The heartbeat quickens and the body tenses during passages of raging fury.” He might modify those kindly words if he saw today’s unashamed displays.

Other pianists have survived careers despite their quirks. The late Glenn Gould once told an interviewer his playing would suffer if he stopped conducting himself with his left hand, slouching over the keyboard and singing along with Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. “I’ve never seen why anyone should concern himself with it,” he said.

And Alessandro Deljevan, who was a semifinalist at the most recent Cliburn Competition, attracted worldwide media and audience attention with his demonstrative facial expressions while playing. I asked him in an interview why he does this. “I am in love with music,” he said. “If I control my playing, I will lose my natural feel. Sometimes music makes me cry, sometimes music makes me scream.” Those emotions are often visible on his face.

Alfred Brendel by Michael Johnson

Solid Germanic Alfred Brendel is no showboater but knows how to communicate with an audience. Famous for his deadpan humor, he brought the house down at Carnegie Hall a few years ago by delivering a fillip at the end of the Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 16 Op. 31 in G major. A New York pianist friend who was there has never forgotten it. Brendel barreled down to the climax, which suddenly flips from ff to pp. As he hit the final chords he turned to the audience with a smile.

“It was a perfect gesture, and it seemed somehow to put the pianist on a level with the audience -- as if we were all there in honor of the music rather than the performer.”

Youngsters trying to find their way in a crowded field of talented performers would do well to learn from the masters. Great piano music works best in an atmosphere of quiet respect.


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