Drawing on musical emotion --- it’s all in the eyes

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. 28.05.2016

For the past few years I have focused my critical sense mainly on piano music and my artwork on the performers who struggle to play it. The faces of some pianists mirror the creative process and thereby inspire my approach to their portraits. My challenge is to capture their moments of deepest feeling – be it joyous or tragic – in drawings. 

In a book-length treatment now in preparation, I am bringing together the critical commentary and the portraits of the musicians I have interviewed, reviewed or otherwise written about over the past few years. These excerpts will appear in “The Music Makers: A Critic’s Sketchbook”, to be published in the autumn.

I sometimes feel intrusive as I analyze faces of musicians. All portraiture takes an intimate approach to detail, examining eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles and folds -- to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo de Vinci invested five years in his great Mona Lisa. I am more modest. My final product emerges in a half-day of effort, or less if it quickly meets a few basic criteria: a recognizable likeness and an interpretation that conveys energy and character.

In sketching any musician, I pay special attention to the eyes, where everyone’s secret emotions lie hidden. Another clue can be loose strands of hair, indicating tossing or nodding or involuntary muscle spasms. The eyebrows sometimes dance. The jaw line might show clenching or strengthening, a sign of concentration, boldness and audacity.

Here are a few abbreviated excerpts and portraits of the pianists from the forthcoming book.


Lang Lang, born in 1982 in Shenyang, Liaoning, China, has single-handedly brought classical piano to new levels of popularity in the Western world with his astonishing technique, his adopted musical sense and his flair for showmanship. His repertoire extends from the Russians to the Germans and the French. Only his outsized exuberance in performance has marred his total acceptance by the public, although many critics excuse his excesses. Special praise has been reserved for his Beethoven, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Other critics, including this writer, find his swoons and spasms at the keyboard a calculated shtick and a sign of deep-seated ego problems. With more than a decade of recording and performing behind him, he travels with orchestras throughout Europe, the United States and Asia, his reputation preceding him. The future will tell whether he can rein in his showboating and allow the music he plays so well to tell his remarkable story.


Arkadi Volodos came late to the piano – serious study began only at age 15, in 1987. He was already immersed in music. Both his Leningrad parents were professional singers and he began as a voice student, then shifted to conducting. Finally he found his niche in piano studies and he rocketed to prominence with technical mastery and an intellectual depth. I was taken by his individuality when I witnessed a 2015 recital in Bordeaux. His reading of the long and sweeping Schubert Sonata in B-major D. 960 was the highlight of the evening. The melancholy second movement, the andante sostuneto, was slowed to a tempo that barely conserved its musical integrity. The effect was nothing short of luminous. His discography is slight but growing, with his own impressive operatic transcriptions plus high-level performances of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Schubert and Tchaikovsky establishing a firm reputation.

 

Vladimir Horowitz had the talent, charm and musical sensibilities to captivate music-lovers and a face that sent artists scrambling for their pencils. I tried to capture all of that in my sketch of this giant of the piano. His tone and color at the keyboard brought listeners to their feet cheering and/or weeping. His eyes had an elusive twinkle. Drawing him was nearly as pleasurable as hearing him play. In today’s crowded world of piano talent, so many reach the 95-99 percent range that it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Horowitz was one who could reach the 100 level and is still easy to identify.

 


Germaine Tailleferre published more than a hundred intriguing, surprising compositions ranging from solo piano and small ensemble creations to orchestral works, ballets and operas. She worked almost until her dying day. Regrettably she suffered abuse as a mere “woman composer” during her lifetime and, worse, the abuse continues. I wish to demur. Is there even such a thing as “women’s music”? Germaine Tailleferre wrote some of the liveliest, most powerful works to come out of “Les Six”, the composers who created a modern French school of composition in the 1920s and 1930s. In this Naxos recording of her Hommage à Rameau, movement III, allegro spiritoso (http://www.naxos.com/catalogue /item.asp?item_code=S2010) she shows what she was made of.  I confess that I chose Ms. Tailleferre as a sketching subject because she was a Parisian beauty but also to reward her individuality – her determination to compose only what sounded good to her, ignoring all kinds of advice from her five more dissonant colleagues. She fought the stereotype of the woman who supposedly is only able to write charming, dainty, melodious and delightful tunes.


Varduhi Yeritsyan is a rising piano talent building a broad discography of Russian and French compositions plus an exotic dimension from her native Armenia (“whimsical and fantasist”, she tells me in an interview). Her new CD of the ten Scriabin sonatas particularly impressed me. Raised and trained in Yerevan, then Moscow, then Paris, she was always immersed in Russian and French literature and musical culture. It is the Russian values – the passion, the excesses, the expressiveness, the contrasts – that make her what she is today, both as a pianist and a person. I include her in my book because of her majestic Scriabin interpretations but also for her dark beauty as a sketching subject. I tried to capture her slightly dreamy side that hints of passion. She is an adopted Parisian dating back 15 years, and remains in touch with her Armenian roots, frequently visiting family there.


Marc-André Hamelin is a Canadian export who has built a strong following with his superb technique, a broad repertoire and a charming personal manner. My two interview sessions with him, backstage at Bordeaux’s new Auditorium concert hall, brought out his love of new repertoire, restrained stagecraft and dedication to composers’ aims, not the pianist’s personality. I found him modest, informed and likeable. One of the most interesting things that emerged from our talk was his total rejection of my term “super-pianist” as a description of his easy displays of virtuostic pianism. He insisted he is no Ignatz Friedman, Artur Rubenstein, Josef Hoffmann, Simon Barrere or George Cziffra. In fact he insisted I remove that term after it appeared in my first mention of him on FactsandArts.com. (I complied.) He also cautioned young players against the stage antics many have indulged in, seeking attention from the paying public. Some pianists make him angry as they overdo the physicality of playing. Speaking of himself, he said: “I must bore some people because I don’t move when I play. My contention is that people should come to concerts to listen, not to watch. I can assure you that you will not learn anything by watching me.”


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