Much has been written in the canon of music history about the virtuoso performer. Starting with the likes of Paganini and Liszt, there has been an unbroken line of artists who continue to stun us with their seemingly effortless performances of the most finger-twisting repertoire. David Stabler put it well in his recent review of Yefim Bronfman’s performance of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto this weekend:
So it’s worth considering what makes Bronfman, born in Tashkent, in what is now Uzbekistan, and who has become a piano gladiator around the world, the incredible pianist he is.
He can play very fast, but so can thousands of other pianists. He can play very softly, but so can others. He plays urgently, smartly, rhythmically, instinctively. He can call forth dazzlement and ovations from listeners unknowing of the piano’s ways and means. He does all those things with absolute jurisdiction over the spiritual and intellectual – and of course, physical – elements of music written for his instrument.
So can others.
What’s left? Sound.
I think what sets Bronfman apart is his sound. Sitting utterly still, this large man offers striking clarity, shading and fullness. Revelatory fullness. Touch isn’t as easy to differentiate on the piano as it is on the violin or cello. The piano is a percussive instrument and its music requires endlessly different demands.
But Bronfman achieves true sonority in breathing, speaking tonal lines.
It’s so true. Tonight he again played the Bartók with incredible efficiency of physical motion, but with the most amazing touch, sound, and range of dynamics. The octaves that close the coda of the 1st movement were just jaw-dropping. Then came the encore. A Scarlatti Sonata. Played with such a limpid sound and beautiful pedaling, it was the perfect antidote to the dense and dramatic Bartók. The audience (and the orchestra, too) wanted more. So then came Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude in c minor. I hate to say amazing again, but it was. But better. You think that he can’t play the fast notes clearer – but he does. You think that he can’t play those faster notes softer – but he does. And in the midst of all of that, he communicates the music with a minimum of fuss and dramatic mannerisms. He’s the anti-Lang Lang.
In case you’ve missed it in your day’s rounds of the internet, Jon Kimura Parker, soloist with the orchestra last week in the Brahms d minor piano concerto, responded to David Stabler’s review (a markedly negative one) of the performance:
We live in a fascinating time where reviewers cannot hide behind their newspapers as in days past, and where online reactions cover a wide gamut. From my perspective as the solo pianist in question, I would like to reassure everyone that while I do often read my reviews, good or bad, I try not to take them too personally or too seriously. I appreciate Mr. Stabler’s being true to his opinion: the last time I played in Portland for PPI, he gave me an extraordinarily generous and enthusiastic review. If I enjoyed that review when it came out (which I did,) I can hardly turn around now and say that I don’t respect his opinion! In fact, he was clear in this review that while he usually likes my playing, he was baffled this time around. All of this is fair game for a reviewer and I am not in the least offended.
However there is a big difference between how I have been reviewed and how the Oregon Symphony is reviewed. Once I leave town (and in fact I’m already in rehearsals for the Beijing Music Festival) any review of my performance loses relevance quickly. It is different for Maestro Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, who depend on ticket purchases and the collective goodwill of the Portland community on an ongoing basis. If there is a pattern of negative reviews, it is theoretically possible that this could affect the health of the symphony. Any sensitive reviewer knows this, and we have to appreciate that this puts Mr. Stabler in a difficult position: if he really takes artistic issue with concerts for weeks on end, how honest should he be to his opinion; how harsh should he be in print? A truly impartial reviewer cannot act simply as free PR. How do you balance being a cheerleader on one end, and a finicky critic on the other? He certainly has the option to exercise discretion and express appreciation for all that the Oregon Symphony is. While Mr. Stabler didn’t choose this approach this time, I am sure that he has on others. There is no question that he must be aware of the artistic and educational impact of the Oregon Symphony on the Portland community.
Around the country, musicians refer to Portland affectionately as “a real piano town.” I would go further to say that Portlanders are passionate and knowledgeable about all classical music. (And many other kinds of music as well – I’m a Pink Martini fan myself.) As a visiting performer I know that many in the audience will either have deep appreciation for Brahms, or specific knowledge of the First Piano Concerto. How wonderful it is to perform in such a welcoming and sophisticated environment! In the very long opening movement of the Brahms, I was aware on all three nights of the total commitment of the audience. Believe me, to most performers, that silence during a performance means much more than the amount of applause afterwards.
How appropriate that the Oregon Symphony chose to perform in memory of stage manager Bob McClung with deeply meaningful music on opening night… I don’t think it occurred to anyone at the Symphony that such a tribute would dampen the effect of the “opening night” vibe; the tribute simply had to be made. Granted, it made for a very long first half, but backstage we all felt good about the gesture. Also, while I’m not always a big fan of long speeches prior to performances (despite occasionally giving them myself) I was touched that Executive Director Elaine Calder made the public gesture of making each purchased ticket go as far as possible in bringing more people to hear the Oregon Symphony.
I would like to say this about the Oregon Symphony from the perspective of a musician who performed with them in the 90s under the esteemed direction of James dePreist, and then not for several years. As wonderful as they were then, they have grown enormously. Their sense of sound, their sense of phrasing, their sense of ensemble, of style, of finesse: for me it is like not seeing someone for several years and being surprised at how much they have changed and grown. I first worked with Carlos Kalmar 20 years ago in Frankfurt, and then not again until this past June in Grant Park. He challenges his musicians in every rehearsal and inspires them with ideas. He has a palpable intensity. There will be hiccups and growth spurts, but I am impressed with the direction these players are going.
In Monday night’s performance, in a moment in the slow movement where I am accompanying the oboes, I glanced in Maestro Kalmar’s direction, which put the cello section in my field of view. They weren’t playing at that moment, and easily could have been just counting bars until their next entry. Instead, Principal Cellist Nancy Ives and Assistant Principal Marilyn deOliveira were listening to the music in what I could only call a state of rapture. What a privilege it is to perform with conductors and musicians who play with this kind of involvement with their art.
Last night was a bit of a strange concert, at least speaking for myself from my vantage point on the stage. First of all, there was the sobering sight of empty seats in the hall – lots of them. It’s not as though this is a strange program – Brahms d minor piano concerto is hardly a dark horse, and the Bartók Divertimento, while it suffers from having the composer’s name printed in the program (some concert goers just turn on their heel and walk out if they even read the name Bartók), is just about as easy going and accessible as Bartók can be. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody is just a lot of fun to play and to listen to, so I’m perplexed. Oh, and Jon Kimura Parker is an amazing pianist by anyone’s estimation, and I’m always amazed when he doesn’t fill halls like a couple of other big names manage to do. Now we have a pretty thumbs-down review from David Stabler to round out the opening night. I’m not sure quite what this was all about, except that last night’s concert started out with a performance of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in honor of Bob McClung, who passed away last week, who was our beloved stage manager. I think that performance took a lot of our energy and focus, both from the musicians and from Carlos, I think, and so the Brahms suffered somewhat in terms of drive and clarity (at least from the point of view of the orchestra’s performance, not the soloist’s). Well, we’ll see what tonight’s performance brings – hope to see you there (with a lot of your friends).
By the way – if you know someone who went last night – harass them for their ticket stub, it’ll get you in free if you exchange it for a new ticket within two hours before the start of the concert!