Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Weekend at Cliburn-ies

[WARNING: This may be the most rambling post I've ever written. Be sure to leave bread crumbs as you read...]

When I think back, two particularly important influences in my decision to become a pianist /musician date back to my teen years when I 1) read a charmingly dated 1959 book entitled The Van Cliburn Legend and 2) saw a documentary about the 1981 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The former is a hokey, hot-of-the press sort of bio, written by Abram Chasins shortly after Van Cliburn had stunned the cold world by winning the '58 Tchaikovsky Competition. It was much later than 1959 when I read it, but it was one of the few books on music one could find at my small-town library. I devoured it, with its stories of the legend getting up to practice for two hours before school, amusing stuck-up New Yorkers with his Texas drawl, and conquering the world with his charm and chops.

I'd never heard of the competition named in honor of Cliburn until PBS showed that 1981 documentary (don't know if it was shown in '81 or '82). Within a year, I'd also seen a documentary about the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition, and it's pretty safe to say I was completely hooked by everything about these mysterious worlds that had opened up - if ever so slightly. The truth is, the documentaries were maddeningly brief, with mostly just glimpses of performances, and (especially in the case of the Tchaikovsky event) a lot of emphasis on personalities and less on what had actually happened. As I recall, the Tchaikovsky film focused mainly on English-speaking musicians and then, at the very end, listed winners; I remember being confused that the affable "stars" of the show were not the biggest prize winners. (Several big prizes had gone to Russian and Asian violinists/pianists who'd barely been mentioned.)

That focus seemed odd to me for what was also surely one of the main attractions to me of these competitions. I was, at the time, a fanatical sports fan, so as I was just falling in love with piano and music generally, it was thrilling to see it as competitive sport. On the other hand, sports had conditioned me to expect more attention would be paid to results, not to mention the gameplay itself. So the documentary thing was really frustrating. Not to sound like an old fogey, but it's amazing to think this was basically my only way to find out anything about these events from my South Arkansas town, pre-Internet. It would have been as if the World Series happened in seven thrilling October games, and I found out who won in a two-hour February PBS film that only showed final results during the closing credits. (Actually, diehard basketball fans may remember that as recently as the late 70's, NBA Finals games would be shown in tape-delay after the evening news.)

By 1989, we actually had a local public radio station that carried a lot of Cliburn competition performances; that was exciting, because I knew one of the contestants (though she didn't make it out of pre-lims), but it took a lot of dedication to keep up with what was going on relying entirely on radio. What a change that is from today, when this year's entire Cliburn competition has been streamed live in remarkably satisfying video quality. The truth is, I've been paying less and less attention to these events over the past 20 years, so when this year's competition began, I had almost no interest, for reasons I'll try to explain. However, over the past couple of days, I slowly got pulled back in and ended up devoting much of my weekend to watching, listening, and scorekeeping. In summary, my thesis statement here would be something I Twittered recently, "Music competitions are so stupid - and such fun!"

My last post concerned some of the ambiguities of how it is that we listen to music, and pondering the Cliburn competition is another great way to dive into that topic. It's pretty easy to make the negative case for these events: 1) music isn't supposed to be a vehicle for competition, it's a vehicle for artistic expression. 2) the events put too much pressure on young artists. 3) the judging is almost inevitably biased, sometimes scandalously so. I took my first dip into Cliburn news this year by reading some of Gregory Allen's ongoing blog reviews of the proceedings. Allen is a distinguished piano prof at UTexas, whose posts I've come to appreciate more and more over the past week, but my immediate reaction was to Twitter, "Reading through Gregory Allen's Cliburn reviews. I find this kind of sniping depressing & so not what music is about."

This got some justifiably curious responses from Twitter followers, and I've spent the past several days trying to figure out just what I meant. First of all, "sniping" wasn't really a fair characterization of Allen's critiques, although I do have a general negative reaction to little one-sentence summary putdowns along the lines of "
this performance was more about surface than substance." To be fair, my immediate negative reaction may have to do with my own inferiority complex; in the years between my first discovery of Van Cliburn and the Tchaikovsky Competition, it turns out I wasn't the first ever to gold-medal in Moscow both as pianist and cellist. I'm perfectly happy with my musical life and with who I am as a pianist, but it's hard not to read these often merciless critiques without wondering what an Allen might say about my playing. I'm fully willing to admit I don't have the technical equipment of any of the pianists in the competition. Maybe that's why I found his reviews depressing.

So, yeah, on the one hand, I've changed a lot since the early 80's, and no longer think it's such a great thing to turn musical performance into a competitive sport - and I really don't like the way an event like this turns so many sideline viewers into nit-pickers. Reading through the various Cliburn blog comments was often depressing, as eager listeners couldn't seem to wait to weigh in with a "ooh, wrong note" or "there's no overall shape to this playing" or "this is vulgar and an insult to the composer" remark. The poor pianist is up there trying to do his or her best in very challenging circumstances, and in most cases wonderfully world-class music is being made, and yet many listeners seem to find much more pleasure in sniping about what's wrong than in the music itself - and the competitive format makes that almost inevitable.

On the other hand, it can be quite compelling to follow along with these comments (a few despicable trolls aside) as a live performance is in progress - to compare my own reactions with those of others. And, in fairness, the moderators of the Cliburn blog and many of the commenters were mostly respectful and insightful. There's something unique about being able to listen collectively in this way, by silently sharing thoughts with enthusiasts from all over the world, while listening as well. Of course, much is lost by not being in the hall and hearing the actual sounds, although the camera angles (generally quite good and appropriately varied) and the mics provide an aural/visual image that is in some ways more detailed than one would get in person. That, of course, is not really fair to the performers, and I think some of the pickiest online sniping about pianist/orchestra coordination focused on details that would have been appropriately lost in the hall.

So, having ignored competitions for many years (partly because I'd turned my focus from solo to collaborative piano), I'm intrigued to have found myself drawn back in and have realized that such events reflect the most important tensions in the classical music world at large. For better or for worse, an event like the Van Cliburn shows how much the music world is about a very particular, even narrow way of thinking about what music should be. Contestants can play anything they want, but let's face it: they play a lot of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Ravel, Beethoven, Haydn, and Bach, and just about everyone has a big Russian concerto at the ready. (All six of this year's finalists played a concerto by either Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev. Apparently in '05, there were four Rachmaninoff 3rds!)

Emphasis on chamber music and new music is mostly of the cursory variety - it's basically about being a pianist in the way that conservatories have been defining piano-playing for a century or so. 19th century rep is the core, memorization is an absolute must, fidelity to the score (as filtered through 20th century sensibility) is highly valued, conspicuous pedaling in Bach is frowned upon, being able to create an enormous sound without banging is essential for concerto success, etc. I don't really have a problem with any of this - after all, this is the very world that drew me into music in the first place. If I could play at the level of any of the six finalists, I'd be a very happy pianist. If I had an opportunity to play the Prokofiev 3rd or the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody with an orchestra, I'd be overjoyed. That rep and that ideal of piano playing still is a big part of who I am.

But, yes, it's a fairly narrowly defined culture, shaped as much as anything perhaps by the general jury requirement for piano majors across the world. It doesn't address a pianist's ability to play a Schubert song cycle, to improvise a Mozartian cadenza, to play from a lead sheet in a jazz combo or an indie rock band, to handle something really avant-garde, etc. Like the wider world of classical music, the culture is defined not so much by a constantly questioning sense of what music might be as it is by a shared sense of what it has been. That way of thinking is coming under attack more and more, and rightly so I suppose. But it's easy to overlook the positives that come from having a common sense of musical values and ideals. Art and culture are significantly about a shared sense of what's meaningful.

In a world that's too open-minded about what a great pianist might be, one wonders if there'd be much audience for anyone in particular. Getting back to my sports roots, I sometimes think that those who want to get culturally-defined rules out of the system are like those who would say:
Yeah, baseball's good in concept, it's fun to watch people swing at a fast-moving little ball, but let's rethink everything about it - number of bases, number of innings, number of players, distance from mound to home, ways in which runs are scored, direction you can run around the bases, etc. Why should we limit ourselves to these preconceived notions about how baseball might be played? Maybe fielders should be able to throw directly at baserunners, like in kickball! How about making everyone in the field take turns pitching, like in volleyball? Maybe pitchers should have to use twelve different pitches, and no single pitch can be reused until all have been used once? What if there was no ball, no players, and no scoring? Just 4 hours and 33 minutes of contemplating the beauty of the baseball diamond? Or, why a diamond? How about a fractal? "
It's almost guaranteed that, with years of seeing what works and what doesn't work, someone could come up with a better version of baseball. Except, it wouldn't be baseball, because it would lose that all-important connection to the shared experience with the past. (Tangential excursion: I've always thought football would be better if they got rid of the fumble rule, and basketball needs to get rid of the fouling-out rule - though a penalty box would be cool. I hate seeing football games decided by watching someone rip the ball away from someone, and I hate seeing basketball games decided because a great player is eliminated due to some horrible call.) I'm not saying that moving away from a Beethoven/Chopin/Rachmaninoff emphasis would destroy what piano playing is all about, but we would lose something, something that helps to make the experience richer for all - something that makes it possible for so many people to be interested in the happenings at a major international piano festival.

Of course, it's still fascinating to see how wildly differently people's impressions can be, however narrowly defined the world. Perhaps the most amusing aesthetic question to me concerned Evgeni Bozhanov's widely deplored performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. What's amusing is that, at least out in the wider world of intellectual musicking, Rachmanoff's music is considered a bit vulgar, because it's so much about dazzling virtuosity (showing off) and big, sappy tunes. (It's also looked down on by some, in all likelihood, because it's so popular.) So what's funny is that the word most often applied to Bozhanov's Rachmaninoff was: vulgar. But, not vulgar from that snooty intellectual perspective; no, vulgar, because Bozhanov was not perceived to have paid enough respect to the score and, thereby, to the composer. (In other words, snooty from a different intellectual perspective.)

Even more oddly, Bozhanov was accused of "drawing attention to himself." Shocking! A man with prodigious keyboard skills, who's been put on stage in front of an enormous orchestra because of those prodigious skills, and who's playing a work that's partly defined by it's suitability for showing off prodigious skills - this haughty young man has the nerve to play in a way that draws attention to himself! In some ways, this suggests the part of "piano culture" that I find most troubling. In order to make us feel all the more important about ourselves, we love to pretend that music is some noble cause that must be treated with immense respect. Actually, I think respect is a perfectly good thing, but we have remarkably constricted ideas of what constitutes respect, and we love to pretend that we're not largely about the business of show business. (You should have heard Bob Schieffer prattle on endlessly at the award's ceremony about the trememendous importance of CLASSICAL MUSIC, with little if anything said about how much fun it is to play and listen.)

Maybe I just feel silly because I watched Bozhanov's performance live - and I loved it. I found it gripping from beginning to end. Yes, I recognized that he did some quirky things - brought out some notes unexpectedly, shifted gears impulsively; but I also genuinely heard him expressing love for the music and the experience of being there on stage, making something new and exciting happen. There was much consternation that he didn't care about conductor or orchestra, but I heard him as listening intently to everthing that was going on around him - and maybe responding spontaneously at times. He missed some notes, he probably faked some notes, but it struck me as serious and engaged musicmaking. I intentionally did not follow the Cliburn blog during the performance, and I Twittered my immediate reaction before diving in to view the critical bloodbath. After reading the almost unanimous disapproval of what he'd done, I haven't known quite what to think. [You can view the performance online; by the way, it doesn't help general perceptions that Bozhanov exhibits some very odd facial expressions when playing.]

At some point I intend to go back and listen again, but should it be my goal to identify all the "vulgar" things Bozhanov supposedly did? In other words, should I set out to figure out why I shouldn't have had such a good time hearing him play in the first place? That seems like an odd kind of thing to do, and yet it can sometimes seem that "learning what not to like" is a major part of what musical training is about. And that presents a BIG problem for classical music, because it means a less "enlightened" audience will often be confused about why something that seemed perfectly enjoyable gets panned. We're a top-down driven world in a lot of ways (critics and academics do a lot of the taste-setting), and that's not always a good thing.

My point is not that there's no such thing as vulgar, excessive playing; but I'm not convinced that simply departing from what's printed in the score is automatically vulgar. Two important considerations come into play here. 1) Rach 2 is so familiar, it's can be refreshing to hear some different ideas brought in. 2) The past century did such a good job of establishing score-fidelity as an important consideration, I think it's safe for there to be some market correction in that area. Anyway, Bozhanov, who had seemed to be a frontrunner heading into the Finals, almost definitely sealed his fate with his Shockmaninoff, as he failed to medal. Yet, from the admittedly limited amount of the competition I heard, he's the the one I'd go most out of my way to hear - a reminder of why so many people hate music competitions, with their natural tendency to weed out the ever-divisive originals.

The two gold-medalists provide plenty to think about as well. I completely agreed with the choice of Haochen Zhang, a 19-year old from China. He showed a prodigious technical command and consistency that impressed everyone, although there was much predictable hand-wringing about his supposedly unimaginative musicianship. I honestly find his playing to be satisfying on just about every level, and suspect people are reading into his playing what they see in his youthful, unassuming demeanor. I actually found his playing much more "musical" than that of his co-gold medalist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind 20-year old from Japan who stole everyone's heart.

Read through the Cliburn blogs and you'll read again and again of the sublimely pure spiritual qualities of Tsujii's playing - qualities I honestly heard much less than in Zhang, but again, listeners inevitably put their feelings about what they see into what they hear. Which is fine with me, because music is ultimately about the whole experience of listening, not just soundwaves. All of which is to say, I'm basically content with all the contradictions built into the idea of music competitions; they're far from perfect, but they can do a great job of spotlighting gifted young musicians and of getting us all to think about what we love about music.

In fact, I was in such competition withdrawal when the Cliburn came to a close, I talked my long-suffering wife into watching that B-movie classic from 1980, The Competition, as a Sunday night chaser. That movie deserves it's own blog post, so surprisingly watchable as it is in spite of enormous helpings of unintentional comedy - but I'll say this: it reinforces how riveting musical performance can be, and I think it communicates that pretty well even to a non-musical audience. In fact, I honestly believe the movie begs for a remake. The plot needs tons of reworking, and just about everything could be better, but I think a scene like this would do more for classical music than most of the desperate efforts you see out there.

So this has been a long and rambling post. I think I'll end it here!

1 comment:

singherz said...

You don't know how much I agree with you on Evgeni Bozhanov! I have been searching such comments and thoughts these days, just to prove that I'm not alone or among a few people who actually appreciate his playing more than any other pianists in the competition. Thank you, and you made my day!