I had packed up and was ready to head out to the library when the music playing on the radio caught my attention. I don’t remember the piece, but I do remember that the playing was beautiful - so beautiful that I had to sit down and listen, all the way to the end. The library would have to wait. I wonder who the performer is, I thought. The announcement came: “Evgeni Kissin.”
Evgeni Kissin! Many regard him as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. I’ve heard him live in concert two or three times - and to tell the truth, my enthusiasm was limited.
I’m not even sure it has anything to do with the way he plays. He can do anything at the piano. His interpretations are full of expression, there are all those colors of sound, his technique is stupendous. It’s almost superhuman - and maybe that’s what disturbed me in concert. There seemed to be something “cold” about it, as if he was “above,” rather than “in” the music.
My favorite pianist these days is Jeremy Denk, whose interpretations are also full of expression, colors of sound, and whose technique is stupendous. What strikes me most about him is the way he “becomes” music when he plays - it doesn’t even matter whether I agree with every detail of the interpretation. “Becoming” the music - that “Zen” ideal - is what I personally value most with any musician, and strive for myself. I believe you can tell the difference whether someone “does” something, or whether he or she “is” something in playing.
Or am I just fooling myself? I have to admit that there are a couple of other things about Jeremy Denk that I find very appealing - his wit and his intelligence, that come across in his program notes, essays and blog entries; the fact that he sometimes wears black jeans and a jacket rather than a tux when he performs - there’s something unpretentious, human about him. He comes across as “the guy from next door,” who turns into the most magical music the moment he goes on stage and touches the piano, whereas Kissin represents more of the “old style” artist, the magician, the king of the music enthroned above the audience.
Ultimately I have to admit that my reaction to an artist is anything but immune to “external” stimuli. There is something about the aura of a pianist - and any person, for that matter - that either attracts me or turns me off.
It became very evident when I was watching the live streaming of the van Cliburn piano competition the other day. Now, that really got me into trouble. Close-ups of the camera are merciless, and I really don’t need an illustration of the emotions in the music on the performer’s face; on the contrary, I find it distracting and occasionally repulsive.
In the end, I picked up some cross-stitch and just listened.
Before each performance there is a short feature about each contestant. They talk about their favorite colors, composers, their family situation etc. Do we need all this extra information ? When you’re serious about music, everything you feel and think goes into your playing anyway. Is it a bait to make the competition more appealing and interesting to people who would not otherwise follow it? They might take a liking to classical music, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
One contestant talked about his religious beliefs. I don’t know whether the judges get to see those things, but if I were a judge, I couldn’t help thinking, how would I react to that? It would have an impact, I’m sure. In some way or other I would have to deal with the “imprint” of the information. Aware of my own bias, I might even overcompensate rather than hold it against the contestant. I know I’ve done it occasionally when I was judging, especially when peer pressure came up in the discussion, when I wasn’t completely sure of myself and realized that I was standing alone with my opinion. That said, I liked the practice of a student competition in New Hampshire where the judges didn’t even get to know the names of the contestants, let alone where they came from or who taught them, until the results were out.
The results of music competitions are not objective - and that’s ok, as long as you’re aware of the fact. They are drawn from a pool of opinions of experts, and separating the playing from the person is probably as hard for them as it is for the rest of us. Maybe the separation is not even desirable, but the focus shifts more easily if the person gets more attention.
Beyond the actual skills of an artist, it’s marketing that makes a career. It’s the “image” someone creates of himself that sells. Ultimately, the complex impression of a person is reduced to the categories “like” and “dislike” on facebook or youtube, and those are the votes that really count.
Each of the young artists who participate in the van Cliburn competition plays well enough to deserve a career. The presentation they are given in the online streaming reveals what big competitions really are: major marketplaces for sales and advertising.