Friday, July 19, 2013 — I went to Steinway Hall last Sunday afternoon, July 14, to hear a classical piano recital. There I met a Russian concert pianist. The recitalist was a Chinese-American girl, 14, performing works by Bach, Chopin, Haydn, Prokofiev, Ravel and Shchedrin. The Russian I met is her teacher. Steinway Hall is in the back of a piano store.
This girl played amazingly well for her age. Unusual for many young performers today, she played with expression rather than just running through a dogmatic litany of notes. I could tell by her playing that she had a very good teacher, and, so, since he was present in the hall, I sought to meet him.
He introduced himself to me simply as Igor. He said he is from Novosibirsk (it means New Siberia), and came here to the United States in 1995. He told me he teaches his students to perform with meaning, emotion. He is assistant professor at West Chester University. He did tell me his last name, Resnianski, and I repeated the pronunciation so I had it right, rolling the R-r-r-r.
Later, upon researching, I learned that he is a Steinway artist and a prizewinner of many national and international piano competitions, holding his doctorate from Temple University. He has performed across Russia and around the globe and has recorded, transliterating his name as Resensky, with fellow Russian violinist Ilya Konovalov, for CD.
Chosen by the Pennsylvania Music Teachers Association as “2012 Music Teacher of the Year,” Dr. Resnianski is highly sought after, regularly giving master classes throughout the U.S. and abroad. His students are winners of competitions, and he serves as a competition juror.
My daughter and I studied with a ballet teacher for many years, an American Ballet Theatre guest master teacher, of whom when other teachers watched her students in their classes – for we sometimes took classes in other studios on our days off – said was an excellent teacher. You can tell – when the student executes the movements correctly and with the attendant discipline.
The girl in Steinway Hall played Chopin etudes (known for their difficulty) and preludes, concluding the hour repertoire with a stunning performance of Chopin’s “Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise.” Maybe in a couple years she’ll return to perform Liszt. Emma, a pianist and teacher, would have loved this performance. I sensed her there with me. Maybe she was. She bought a medium grand Steinway piano in the 1960s. She could have bought a nice car with that money. She sold it later when she moved from Delaware to Florida. Of course, Sunday the store salespeople tried to sell me a piano, but the one I want starts at about $35,000. Naturally, the store will finance the buyer. I wonder how old I’d be by the time I got that thing paid off…? A friend of mine said I’d be 55. Hmmm…. Curiously, maybe my name is really Benjamin Button. I won’t give up hope of getting an older, pre-owned black Steinway baby grand, though. The best I can do now, however, is look for it to rain pianos.
I found it interesting that on their wall in “Steinway Hall” hung a painting titled “Rubinstein plays for the Czar,” a part of the Steinway Collection. My companion thought it was a young looking Arthur Rubinstein. “No, it couldn’t be Arthur Rubinstein – I don’t think,” I said. I asked the store personnel which Rubinstein and which czar it was. No one knew. I thought it was Anton. It was Anton Rubinstein, it turns out, playing for Czar Nicholas I; he often played in that court. Later, in the 1870s, Anton Rubinstein came to the U.S. at the behest of Steinway & Sons, to perform. Anton Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His younger brother, Nikolai, founded the Moscow Conservatory. When Pyotr Tchaikovsky presented his newly completed first piano concerto to Nikolai Rubinstein in 1874, Nikolai declared the concerto worthless and unplayable. Tchaikovsky was devastated. These reactions would be equivalent to my ripping this completed manuscript page out of my typewriter, turning and handing it to Stephen King and having him throw up on it. I hope you, dear reader, feel not so inclined, for I have composed here not such genius work.
Arthur Rubinstein was born in Lodz, Poland (part of the Russian Empire at that time) and not related to the earlier Moscow-born Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein. Anton awed many by his uncanny resemblance to Beethoven. Arthur Rubinstein chose to play the piano rather than a violin or other instrument because he, as I, preferred the harmony and polyphonics of the piano. Arthur Rubinstein did perform in Russia sometime after his 1906 Carnegie Hall debut, but not for the Czar, to my knowledge.
I love Russian composers, musicians, conductors, and literary writers — clearly. Of those today, there’s something about conductor Valery Gergiev and his music. Among the many capacities throughout his illustrious career, he currently serves as general director and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, principal conductor of the London Symphony, and artistic director of the annual White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, which he conceived in 1993 as a musical gift to the city.
Gergiev’s is not your father’s music. He conducts the same music you have been listening to all your life, yet hearing that music conducted by Gergiev is like hearing it for the first time. For example, I think Tchaikovsky would be thrilled to hear, say, his Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty ballet: he might be saying something like, “Wow. That’s what I meant. And, even I didn’t realize that.” It’s still the way the composer intended, but maybe more what the composer intended; that is to say, that it’s what the composer wished in his wildest dreams. There’s just that subtlety in Gergiev’s interpretations — I speak here particularly of the Russian composers — that is mystical. It affects me in such a way that I never get enough of his interpretation of a certain piece that I’ve been listening to for years. He really listens; he not only calls forth the subtleties in the composition but also achieves this with sensitivity and warmth, with an intimacy. Gergiev gets at the soul of the music.
Somewhere in the 1970s I was walking along The Strand in Hermosa Beach, Calif., on a breezy, bright sunny day, when through the open windows of the top floor of a Spanish-style house turret came glorious phrases and arpeggios of what sounded to me like a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, not his second, but likely his third. It was one of those mystical moments that lifts you off your feet – the piano passages spilling out across the broad beach, shimmering like the spray off the Pacific waves crescendoing upon the shore.
I’ve long believed I have a Russian soul. This I have found best defined by an Amazon.com reviewer’s description of Sergei Rachmaninoff, regarding that composer’s second piano concerto, performed by Arthur Rubinstein: “For lovers of Russian culture, Rachmaninoff’s works also have that mysterious quality – they sound ‘Russian’ – that is, like other great Russian works of culture, they are embued [sic] with essential qualities of complexity, romance, dark and brooding melancholy, passion, and strength, both raw and sophisticated… and are expressed in a manner that is, for lack of a better term, Slavic. http://www.amazon.com/Rachmaninoff-Piano-Concerto-Rhapsody-Paganini/dp/B000003ENO. I am not Slavic, though. I grew up with simply a Russian clock, Russian music in the house, and a Steinway baby grand.
Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin arranged parts of Bizet’s “Carmen” and produced The Carmen Ballet for his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in 1968. In 1972 he composed the Anna Karenina ballet for her. The Russian piano teacher I met last Sunday told me this story when I told him I had studied ballet for many years. (My daughter’s and my ballet teaching lineage goes all the way back through Balanchine to the Mariinsky. Our early two teachers danced for the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine.)
On June 26 this year, Valery Gergiev inaugurated the new Chamber Music Hall at the Mariinsky-II. The hall is named Shchedrin Hall, “to the Russian genius who shares a long and fruitful history of collaboration with the Mariinsky Theatre.” The inaugural performance was of a new Shchedrin opera “The Lefthander,” based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov – a buffonade through tragedy: There are the Russian emperors Alexander I and Nicholas I, the Winter Palace and the British Royal Court – the artistic contrast of the rational British and the irrational Russian. Fascinating.
Some months ago I searched for DVDs of Valery Gergiev conducting and came up with “Valery Gergiev Conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra” (2000), and thought O.K., I’ll view that; should be pretty good.
I was not prepared for what I saw: Russian violist Yuri Bashmet (b. 1953), back in the Soviet days asked Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) to compose a viola concerto for him. It took Schnittke nine years to begin his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, and by the time he finished, he was living in Amsterdam and had had a stroke. But it was done, and then Bashmet had to battle with the Soviet government to be allowed to perform it outside Russia so that Schnittke could witness the premier performance. “A very kind person” helped Bashmet unravel the Red tape, and the performance was given. Unfortunately, Schnittke was too ill to attend, so it was videotaped and Schnittke watched it at home. Bashmet played the concerto at the Gergiev Vienna Philharmonic Salzburg Festival performance. You know, the Vienna Philharmonic is considered by many to be the finest orchestra in the world. And here was Gergiev conducting.
The program opened with the Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony No. 1, on the classical style, a Haydn sounding piece, very pleasant, evoking the higher human self, and climaxes with the full version of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” This music for ballet was commissioned by impresario Serge Diaghilev, who would have been pleased with Gergiev’s conducting, so colorful you could almost see the firebird flitting about the orchestra. (In the 1920s, Diaghilev hired George Balanchine as the Ballet Russes ballet master to replace Bronislava Nijinska (Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister.))
At this Salzburg Festival, in-between the Prokofiev and the Stravinsky came the Schnittke concerto: Let me just point out that if I didn’t know who Bashmet and Gergiev were, I would not want to be alone in a small, dim room with these two passionate, wild-eyed men, especially the very dark Bashmet with the Romantic-era length hair and if Dostoevsky were present and some other guy had drunk too much vodka and perched on the sill to jump out the window.
Bashmet walked out on stage, took his stance, one leg forward, knee bent, placed his viola under his chin and began playing the viola concerto Alfred Schnittke composed for him. I was stunned. It’s Niccolò Paganini returned from the dead, I proclaimed to myself. The resemblance is striking. The six note theme of the piece enters near the beginning – it spells out Bashmet’s name (B flat – A – E flat – C – B natural – E natural, the Anglo-Saxon notation), is expanded in the second movement and the third concluding by drawing on the notes from the only chord they contain, the A minor triad. The piece is, to say the least, stirring. It is intense, at times terrifying, at other times, a desolate lament. Schnittke had had a stroke and entered a new, dark phase of his life. You have to listen to it, really listen, like you have to really listen to your life. To make this work even more compelling, in this performance, tears well in Bashmet’s eyes and he cries. No – he doesn’t full-on sob; I thought if he did he would make a real mess out of the beautiful wood on his viola. In the end, the camera close-up reveals not only the sweat dripping from Bashmet’s face and dark hair, but the tears, too, running in rivulets down the viola and presumably into the sound holes. I wondered how long it would take the instrument to dry out.
Although I’m not of a mind to jump out windows when there’s nothing I can do to resolve life’s traumas, my solution is to retreat into my music, especially classical music, and turn it up loud, so loud I cannot hear the phone next to me ring.
That Sunday evening after the concert I came home and watched a new episode of the ITV series Endeavour, the prequel to the popular long-running Morse that starred the late, inimitable John Thaw. This is the second episode of Series 2, titled “Fugue.” This plot deftly interweaves both the musical and the psychological meanings of the word. Opera plays a leading role. I can’t say more without giving away the solution, but the final line held much meaning for me:
“Go home, put your best record on, loud as it’ll play, and with every note, you remember… That’s something that the darkness couldn’t take from you.…”
*Programme Note by Gerald McBurney on Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra:http://alfredschnittke.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/viola-concerto-2/.