October 25th. Steinert Hall. "An Evening with Steinway."
I saw the flyer for this event while leaving the building where my voice lessons take place. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to sit back and enjoy exquisite piano playing -- something I marvel at. So after work on a windy Tuesday evening, I made my way across the Boston Commons and sat in an old upstairs recital hall, which I learned, was hosting one of its last concerts ever, before Steinert and Sons, the piano dealer downstairs (opened in 1860), would have to pack up and move out. For over 150 years pianists had come in and out of that hall --playing, listening, learning, sharing, suffering at times, no doubt.
Then out came a tall Ukrainian artist named Alex Poliykov, who quickly nodded a hello to the attendees, and then sat down and played a whole concert from memory, starting with Four Impromptus Op. 90 (1827), by Franz Schubert: #1 in c minor, #2 in e-flat major, #3 in g-flat major, #4 in a-flat major.
When pianists sit at their instrument and play, it's an experience for me unlike any other. I am dumbfounded by how their brains can hold all the individual notes -- all of them stubbornly reliant upon each note before and after them, and yet also autonomous -- in their brains, which to to me, seem like super-music intel processors. How does a pianist keep all the notes in his mind's eye and still manage to express them, breathe them in and exhale them out for all to listen along and share in the experience? These moments of hearing and watching heighten my senses, and make me feel like just one misplaced breath on my part could make the whole deck of cards crumble. And so I choose to close my eyes, for fear that what they might enact by seeing could interfere with this intricately balanced superhuman, psychic act unfolding at the piano...I feel audience and pianist are complicit in these situations, because the task happening before us is really like a miraculous feat of humanity reaching towards a supernatural monolith -- for to see music in the mind's eye and act it out boldly through one's fingers, ears, and heightened senses is the equivalent of birthing one uninterrupted stream of creation -- like purging an entire force, a body, an entity.
Was it no coincidence that so many of the great composers were also master keyboardists? Here I am listening to 200-year old music, and it is more visceral an experience than any rock concert I've been to, complete with amp systems galore. In those days, before recordings and technology we take for granted -- like lights, elevators, and smartphones -- music-making and music-listening must have indeed been a kind of sacred affair. One did not simply listen to music -- one sat to hear it, congregated, got dressed up, had to be invited...You lit candles, dangerously tempting the flammable life around you, insolently bringing light into the dark of night..changing the conditions ordered by nature itself...Maybe that's why the music made for those times was so damn good, and that's why it's endured. It was the best of the musical minds delving as deeply as anyone had ever gone before into the sonic mind of the universe: music cutting through the darkness of the undiscovered... before technology lit that darkness up and blinded us.
Next up: Beethoven's Sonata #23 Appassionata. Three movements: Allegro assai; Andante con moto, attaca l'Allegro; Allegro ma non troppo, Presto. Poliykov's dynamic range rumbled through our beings like some kind of caged force unleashed from Pandora's box: his use of the soft pedal interspersed with the loudest fortissimos I've ever heard live on piano. There were kids in the audience and I thought fleetingly that they were probably scared from it, though I had no remorse for this, because one of them was wearing a synthetic fabric for sweatpants that rustled offensively every few seconds, breaking my concentration -- I could only hope the artist was so lost in his work that he didn't notice it too!
Note to parents: dress your kids in quiet clothes! (or teach them to sit still at concerts if you insist they attend)...Better yet, don't bring kids to serious concerts where sublime musical experiences are meant to take place.
Hearing the complexity and beauty of that night's music, I had a startling insight into how very pivotal the pianoforte was for audiences and artists alike, opening new possibilities and worlds for dynamic expressions and visceral realities. Have you ever heard music that thundered through your body without the use of force or amplification? Just someone's mind, creativity, fingers, and life-long dedication to something called art...
Intermission. Wine and cheese. I drink water. The artist comes back with a young cellist named Andrew Koutroubas. They play three songs, of which Handel's Largo from Xerxes stood out for my personal appreciation of the beautiful: heart opening -- and melting -- as it was. Then they played Sonata #1 in e minor by Brahms. It was the first time I have knowingly heard Brahms played live, and what a wild world to be introduced to! An individualistic tangle of sound that knows itself is how I describe it.
Then it was over. I'd sat for over two hours imbibing a complete musical experience. After the concert, I asked Alex Poliykov how he does what he does, and explained that it seems superhuman to me. He says all it is is "a lot of time." How very human of him to say.