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

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."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."
Jul 6th 2019
Extract: ".........growing poverty even when working, the collapse of stable and safe social identities linked to work, the increasing instability of employment security, and the rapid change of local communities due to emigration, migration, collapsing housing affordability, and redevelopment initiatives that displace communities. These provide precise and urgent electoral rallying points. They are particularly effective given that so many mainstream politicians ignore these basic grievances. In recent years, the lineup of politicians opposing the New Right – Hillary Clinton, the Remain campaign, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Renzi – have been unwilling to even recognise these structural problems. This provided the New Right the opportunity to appear credible, simply by acknowledging them."
Jul 6th 2019
".........an openly Russophilic administration in the US may be one reason why Putin’s domestic support has been declining so sharply."
Jul 3rd 2019
"Extract: .........in a world of rapidly expanding automation potential, demographic shrinkage is largely a boon, not a threat. Our expanding ability to automate human work across all sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – makes an ever-growing workforce increasingly irrelevant to improvements in human welfare. Conversely, automation makes it impossible to achieve full employment in countries still facing rapid population growth........The greatest demographic challenges therefore lie not in countries facing population stabilization and then gradual decline, but in Africa, which still faces rapid population growth."
Jul 1st 2019
Trump’s personal style – vocal, expertise-averse, scandal-prone and driven by a focus on his partisan base – may be unusual, but aspiring Democratic presidential contenders may be making a serious error in allowing Trump’s “Wizard of Oz” act of big claims and small achievements to pass unchallenged. There is a massive gap between the pledges he made to voters and the reality of an outsider presidency thoroughly co-opted by its party. So far, the “Trump revolution” turns out to be an ordinary Republican presidency.
Jun 25th 2019
"Trump’s vindictive bluster has steamrolled economic-policy deliberations – ignoring the lessons of history, rejecting the analytics of modern economics, and undermining the institutional integrity of the policymaking process. Policy blunders of epic proportion have become the rule, not the exception. It won’t be nearly as easy to spin the looming consequences."