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."


If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com. Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."