Last night, Tiraje and I drove to Cincinnati to hear the CSO perform the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, with Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein as soloist. It was a spectacular performance. I would not have any idea how many concerts I have attended in my life, but this particular one will stand out in my memory for the rest of my life. It was overwhelming. I was riveted to my seat, which was not more than ten feet away from Gerstein.
So many thoughts came to mind that I thought I would share them in a post.
Tiraje and I attend CSO concerts often, something I think I have probably mentioned in previous posts. We prefer to sit as close as possible to the piano soloist, and this has always been money well spent. We’ve been subscribers for over 30 years, so we’ve heard dozens of first-rate performances, observed many fine pianists and other soloists, and in general have had, almost routinely, breathtaking experiences. The CSO is a very fine orchestra.
But last night’s concert was so far above what we had previously experienced that the only word I can use—and it is so inadequate—is that it was overwhelming. Describing it in words will be difficult.
A captured moment in the history of a civilization, here on earth…
I’ll get to the performance in a moment. But first, and perhaps foremost for me, was a different kind of feeling, an observation. An observation I’ve had frequently, yes, but never was it so solidly underscored as last night. And that is the observation of a time—THIS time—OUR time—in history. We live in a CIVILIZATION—for all intents, we are living at the peak period of a civilization—as evidenced in a concert such as this one.
A visitor from another planet would observe that several thousand humans have come together to hear sounds—sounds the humans regard as beautiful or important, and obviously requiring incredible physical and mental abilities on the part of the performers. It would be difficult to imagine anything these humans could do that would require greater skill and mental agility. The sounds themselves were obviously created by one of the civilization’s preeminent composers of sounds, and—so these aliens might deduce—performable only by the smallest subset of the race.
This somewhat silly analogy was not actually what I was thinking at the moment, though. I was simply AWED by the fact that, within the past century, a civilization—our civilization—felt it IMPORTANT enough to produce such monumental musical art for public consumption. Forget all one knows about music history or piano performance or any of that—I was just observing, in the moment, the fact that the creation of art, performed by tremendously capable individuals, united for the purpose of creating beauty in a given moment, is important to our civilization.
This may seem an odd place to begin an enthusiastic “review.” I suppose when we are in the presence of any human activity that seems magnificent that similar thoughts could occur to any person. Nevertheless, that feeling of “I can’t believe I am actually here, experiencing this”—and simultaneously reflecting on the fact that it is occurring at all—in 2019—on planet earth—is mind-blowing.
I’m doing an inadequate job of describing this.
Tears…being a passive sponge for beauty
Readers of my Music I Love posts obviously know that I love music, many different kinds of music. Music speaks to my soul, it moves me. BUT—an experience I have always envied in other music lovers is the ability—actually, “ability” is not the right word—maybe “inclination” or “propensity” or “tendency”—but I’ll have to stick with “ability” for right now—the ability to react to beauty with tears. THAT has always been, for me, a measurement of how deeply a person can feel ANYTHING. To have a soul that is an open door to pure beauty. I know that for a lot of musicians, THOUGHTS—our always-active minds—often—very often—intrude and interfere with our simply being a passive sponge for beauty.
I remember my best friend at Juilliard describing many times during his growing up years when the beauty of Chopin totally overwhelmed him to the point of spontaneous tears—that he did not understand what was even happening—he was young—that the mere sounds just drew tears out of him, like a ladle drawing water out of a well.
Every time I encounter a person who can have this reaction to the beauty in music, I wish I was that person. So, obviously this is not an accustomed feeling for me to have. Perhaps I was, for whatever reason or combination of reasons, just in the “right mood” last night. But after maybe the first two minutes of the first movement, I felt tears welling up inside me. By the time the third movement was being played, I actually thought I was going to lose it, that tears were going to start rolling down my face. This feeling was not constant, it came and subsided, but I was helpless, a branch afloat in a sea of beauty. I am pretty certain that those of you—wonderfully emotional people that you no doubt are—for whom such reactions to beauty are routine–may wonder why I wonder at this experience. But at least you’ll know why I savored it, even as it was happening.
There are many who feel that pure beauty, whether in music or some other art, in a landscape or seascape, or in the laugh of a baby—or any of a thousand other reflections of beauty—are just that: reflections. Of God, or a deity, or some indefinable transcendence that we humans can only experience as reflections. Maybe that’s true, or maybe beauty is something else altogether.
For us music lovers, getting small tastes of the infinite are always worth the wait.
Time stood still…
I suppose we’ve all felt the phenomenon of time standing still, when our concentration on something is so complete that we become unaware of the passage of time. So, maybe talking about it is kind of a cliché. Nevertheless, I have never had such extended periods of time—minutes long, and one after another—where I was completely unaware of time—as I experienced last night. My guess is that when one is drawn into beauty, time seems to disappear, that we are—however briefly—outside of time. Again, maybe a cliché.
But, how sweet the taste of not feeling time. I think that’s about as zen as can be imagined.
I am guessing that one reason I felt this escape from the clutches of time is because I was hearing perfection. I am not using the word lightly, either. I’ve heard the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto in my life hundreds of times. I’ve heard it in live performance at least a dozen times, probably closer to two dozen. The Rach Third, as it’s called by pianists, is as formidable a concerto as there is in the entire piano repertoire. The combination of physical pyrotechnics and the ability to meaningfully communicate with an audience lift this concerto up into a rarified atmosphere for the performer. Just to make a silly comparison—yet again, and only because of my limited mind—one does not enter the 1600 meter run in the Olympics if one has any doubt about being competitive—or about being the best.
Kirill Gerstein’s background is unusual. He is Russian, and came to the U.S. to study JAZZ piano at the Berklee School in Boston as a young man. As a young boy, he studied classical piano, but had an intense interest in jazz. When he was just 14, he met, and was heard by, jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton at a jazz festival in St. Petersburg. Burton was the director of Berklee, and offered him a full scholarship on the spot. Gerstein became the youngest student ever admitted to the school.
By the age of twenty, he had returned to classical music, studying at the Manhattan School of Music, receiving both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He already had a performing career when, at 21, he won the Artur Rubinstein International Competition. This was followed by his being awarded the Gilmore Young Artist Award.
The Gilmore Award—which includes a cash prize of $300,000—is awarded every four years to the most promising young pianist. For the past fifteen years or so, Gerstein has performed as soloist with orchestra and as solo recitalist all over the world. His recordings win awards. Home base for him is in Stuttgart, Germany, where he is—when not touring—professor of piano at the Musikhochschule Stuttgart.
All this biographical info is just to state the obvious, that Gerstein is an impressive player with impressive credentials.
But, as I inferred at the outset, I’ve been hearing impressive players with impressive credentials my whole life. I have NEVER heard perfection before—and this includes a most memorable performance by Evgeny Kissin. If I only said that Gerstein was note-perfect in this fiendishly difficult work, that would be an impressive statement. But to also communicate—to the front row where we were—or with the intensity and power required to communicate to the furthest reaches of the hall, regardless of the score’s dynamics—to communicate with such controlled passion every soaring phrase—and not a single melodic note left out or undernourished–such a performance makes one wonder, anew, at just what a giant of pianism and composition Rachmaninoff was.
As an afterthought to such great performances, one knows–always–that the performer knows that only a handful of listeners in a given audience know precisely what he doing, and how admirably he is doing it. The reaching out to be perfect—the guiding light for all musicians—is something that true artists like Gerstein cannot NOT do.
The goal for artists like him, and for all artists, is to reach above. Then, and only then, will real communication with an audience take place.
It was indeed one of the most memorable concerts—and one of the most memorable experiences, period—of my life.
I should also mention that the conductor for this performance was the young and very talented Karina Canellakis.