Sunday, June 16, 2013

This ain't your grandma's Mozart: thoughts on the classical music star machine

When people I meet learn that I'm a pianist they often ask if I compose music. I don't. I interpret.

Sometimes they wonder then what that means exactly. What is there to interpret? After all, the the text is written out for you; all you need to do is play the notes, follow the instructions, so to speak.

That's when I deliver my ready-made "actor analogy": a classical musician does for a musical text what an actor does for scripted dialogue. Sure the notes are all there -- just like words in a script. But a lot of information is missing from the score, and so each pianist will play the same piece differently. It's like if you gave the same character's lines to George Clooney and Toby McGuire. Each would have a unique take on them. They would deliver the lines differently.

I always feel better after that one. It makes the point;  and, by association, makes classical piano feel somehow more in.

Admittedly, I sometimes need reassurance on this last point. I've devoted a good part of my life to studying and playing music from the past few centuries, music that has in turn been played and replayed over and over -- and over -- again. It's all good and well to be the guardians of a long musical tradition. But I want to be reassured that classical music is not only relevant to the here and now, but is alive, fresh, dynamic, creative, and even new.

That's it: I like being reminded that there's still something new to be done with classical music.

Two recent concerts I attended did exactly that.

The first was given by the Turkish pianist Fazil Say at the Salle Gaveau.

A year ago I had never heard of Fazil Say. And yet, he'd been around for a while already. A German friend* gave me a few of his CDs last summer. In May, the same friend invited me to go with her to his concert (thanks again, Anna!). Say has an air about him. For starters, he was recently condemned to prison in his native Turkey for insulting Islam, a story picked up by papers all over, from the New York Times to Le Monde, conferring on him the aura of an international political martyr. Then, he has the slightly deranged look of an eccentric, insular genius -- which is great when you actually are an eccentric genius.

What more could a record label ask for?

Alone on stage, his presence is gravitational. He doesn't pull you into his world though; only to the edge of it. There's proximity. He speaks, we listen. He seems to forget we're there, and so you can never quite penetrate his world.

Say was scheduled to play a four-hand transcription of the Rite of Spring on specially fitted piano, on which Say himself had recorded the accompanying part. Say and Say play four hands. When the piano got stuck in Vienna and was unable to be delivered to Paris, the program was changed -- mercifully -- to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Beethoven's opus 111.

I won't go into details about the concert except to say that through all his humming and singing, hand waving and conducting, the performance was brilliant. And sometimes shocking. At one point he dampened the strings with his left hand in Pictures for no more than three or four notes. Such a small touch, but an inspired one. Tasteful yet ballsy.

Say's presence, his aura, and a handful of truly inspired moments like the one I just mentioned electrified the audience in a way you rarely experience. Rarer still, as encores he played his own compositions (including Black Earth) and then...improvised...!

The second concert was given by Khatia Buniatishvili (Listz's second piano concerto). Buniatishvili doesn't have Say's air of an eccentric genius. She brings something else. She rather has the appeal of a young Argerich. She's young, sensual and prodigiously talented. She's multilingual. (Her French is as good as her English.) She plays with panache. She follows in a long line of distinctive pianists with distinctive hair -- Cortot, Argerich, Kissin... -- to the point where it has become, along with her arched posture, her mark of individuality. It's her brand.

In short she, like Fazil Say, is star material. She attracts the crowds. Her concert was broadcast live on at least three different platforms. As I was leaving her concert she was signing autographs before a dense crowd in the Salle Pleyel's lobby.

The star machine run by record labels and agents was clearly going full steam. Buniathishvili's success is no doubt a result of it. So much the better. These vedettes are a sign of a healthy industry, which is exactly what reassures me. Classical music culture is alive and well, young and surprising. Classical music still attracts the crowds.

How is this renewal accomplished? It's not just a question of new blood. Nor is it one of new interpretations. It has to do with the erosion and shifting of protocols and codes, of which the classical music world is rife. It also has to do with evolving perceptions of who classical musicians are, how they should act, what they should wear, where they should come from.

* I mention this friend's nationality only because Fazil Say had been popular in Germany for quite a while, given that he had once lived and studied there.


  1. Schuyler Chapin, in the documentary, Art of Piano, says "we assume that everyone who wants to be a concert pianist can really play the instrument," in his words. The real test is whether or not someone can attract an audience.
    If these two can do so, they will have careers. If they are genuinely themselves, and still attract listeners and viewers,then they will have enduring success.
    There is a concept in jazz that the recently deceased Mulgrew Miller called "Interview Music." This is the idea that if someone is playing or has recorded something so outre' that it will draw the press and media like flies, them it will receive attention, even though we know what flies are usually most attracted by...
    Thus, if these two pianists, and others, are genuinely themselves, and STILL put off an aura of individuality, depth, and charisma, their success will not rely on trends or fads, but on substance and their own inner being shining through in their music. MBB

  2. In response to your first paragraph, it's true that there are innumerable accomplished pianists who don't achieve stardom. Indeed, it takes that "something else" to make it to the top. It also takes some luck.

    Fortunately there is a place, and a market, for accomplished pianists of all stripes. I couldn't say how many times I've been to great recitals given by pianists that aren't household names. Or even how many truly good recitals given by your average, run-of-the-mill conservatory professor.