Tuesday, November 10, 2015

the mastery of silence

The Rudolfinum
The other evening, the wife and I had the pleasure of watching Khatia Buniatishvili, who is perhaps currently one of the top virtuoso piano players making the classical circuits these days. The stage at the Rudolfinum was bare but for the black, shining grand, with the elegant neoclassical backdrop that looks somewhat like an ancient Roman temple towering behind. It was a treat to finally see the Rudolfinum in its purpose as a temple to fine music. It was built some 150 years ago in 1884 and has bounced back and forth in its purpose. Though built by a Czech bank, much of the Rudolfinum’s architecture centered around Classical and German art, with the statues being of musicians who had never even stepped foot in Prague. This brought a lot of notoriety among the Czech locals, but it didn’t stop the Philharmonic from making its home there, along with the Kusntverein fur Bohmen (the Fine Arts Society). Because of that though, finally a Czech artist would be brought to light in the theatre, as this became Dvorak’s home theatre and the stage adopted his name. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the birth of the short-lived First Republic, the theatre was repurposed into the chamber of parliament, where the building was somewhat ruined from its original stature – politics indeed usually has such an effect. It was finally the Nazis who liberated it from the dull life of politics and returned it to its original German-inspired purpose and it became again a hall of the arts. They repurposed it back to a concert hall, along with a renovation improving the acoustics, and they added another smaller concert hall to the structure. See the Czech book Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiri Weil for a nice adventure story on all that. The Communists generally left it the same, though they added a big red star outside in the garden and renamed the square, "Army Square" or something equally as intriguing. When the Czech Republic became a democracy again, they did a final restoration of the building, bringing it back into full glory.

Truly though, the night wasn’t defined by the building, but rather by the contents. Khatia Buniatishvili is a remarkable player, both for her ability and her beauty. And frankly, I think it must be a challenge to be respected for your skill when you’ve got the T&A to keep everyone distracted. The people in the audience were absolutely raucous after the performance, and I can’t but sadly reflect it was more for her looks than for what it should have been for – her tremendous skill. She was born into it, starting the piano at the age of 3 and performing her first concerts in Tbilisi at 6 years old, something of a wunderkind really. Now she prefers to play Liszt and his like, perhaps because of that style’s vehement, whirlwind carriage, of the flashy salutes to style and the overindulgence to emotion over refinement. Liszt was known for his flourishes and his improvisation, adding all sorts of character to what had already become thought of as stodgy and uptight music, Beethoven and Bach, by his era. And as Liszt was known for flaunting his emotion physically, for falling all over the piano, throwing about his wigged hair, so is Khatia known for an over sexuality as she embraces the piano keys as she would a lover, as though the piano were her only actual true love, despite what she might think of any person. One even wonders if someone of her skill level is even capable of loving anything else but the product of their ability, as that product is so beyond what most might even dream.

It’s that passion though that puts Georgia as a future powerhouse of the arts as it continues towards a path of globalization – at least it was on that path, recent events show that the current administration seems particularly pressed to get off of that path. Many people comment on the brilliance of skill that many East Asians have in piano, though lamenting the lack of emotion as their culture tends to prefer discipline. And indeed, with enough discipline, anything is just about manageable, even playing Rachmaninoff’s Second – I personally got the honor to watch one such Asian, Yuja Wang, play it. Could I tell if it felt emotional or not? I think on many songs, like the “Rach II”, the playing is so technical and intense that only the most trained ears can tell. The common listener only sweats at what seems like a tornado of sound and skill. But perhaps too much discipline does cover up the emotion of a piece, and this is one thing that makes Georgians on the next level of music, since they’re so willing to let their passion and inspiration override any sort of discipline. This works both to their advantage and disadvantage in life, but especially to their advantage in music.

Liszt rocking it
The night’s program was generally an ode to Liszt – a perfect ode for a Georgian pianist, being the temperamental well of emotion that the man was. Liszt – a man whose name I could never figure out how to pronounce until recently, it’s “lisht” by the way – was a 19th century Hungarian composer who spent a lot of time in Vienna and Paris and was kind of a dullard at piano starting off until he saw a charity concert by Paganini in Paris, when he said, “I want to play piano like that guy plays violin.” Now we’re not talking about sitting at the tavern playing some Irish jigs violin, Paganini liked to play violin ala The Red Violin in that scene where the guy is playing while he’s making love to his mistress. It’s not the type of music you’d want to listen to at the bar, as it takes your full concentration to understand and analyze the music, while at the same time you’re left stunned by the giant of talent that sits before you. Indeed, if someone played that sort of music in a bar, most people would probably be left confused and mildly depressed. So after Liszt was victimized by this villain with a violin, he started a real and furious study of piano, really getting down all the scales that he would later put into his songs. Scale after scale after scale. He was probably the first composer to really consider scales and practice exercises as musical pieces, as many of his pieces just sound like stellar practices, with the clouds of the crazy loud technical practice breaking away into a kind of heavenly melody, serving as the eye of a continued storm of technique.

Khatia Buniatishvili in the Rudolfinum
Khatia didn’t start with Liszt though, she started with one of Liszt’s biggest fans, Ravel, who had a big man-crush on the Franciscan tertiary pianist and who I never really cared for but apparently the French love. She wrapped it up with Stravinsky’s Petrushka excerpts, who I think is much more worthy of praise than that Gaullic composer aforementioned. Stravinsky combines the insane technical work of Liszt and his heavenly melodies, but instead of having them at different parts of a piece, mashes them altogether in a giant meat grinder of stress and trauma. Nothing is safe with Stravinsky, as he quite willingly tears down every border in his genre of music, in a lineage that is a logical progression of Liszt’s work. Stravinsky, along with the other Russian piano whizz, Rachmaninoff, were probably the last of the real Romantics, the last of the great composers to make music “really live” in Rachmaninoff’s words, before classical music gave way to modernism and became less of a masturbation of talent and more of a repetition of a single note and the mastery of silence.

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