Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Loud and Fast, Loud and Clear

by D. Ch’an-Moriwaki
(dianna cm)

Pianist Yuja Wang played last night, the eve of the Summer Solstice, giving San Francisco the recital that didn’t happen in April, Ms. Wang having been coping then with an arm injury. The evening was thus a triumph, personal as well as musical, as gauged by the audience’s standing response which brought Chopin and Scarlatti encores, wrapping up a program of Schubert-Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, and Prokofiev.
But, must virtually every performance these days be acknowledged by standing ovations? More to the point, is the current penchant for clapping while standing on one’s feet truly warranted? Is the old-fashioned tradition of clapping while sitting in one’s seat really so passé? Aren’t inspired artistry and insightful interpretation, balanced by well-judged musicality and impeccable musicianship, each aspect present in a unitized, provisionally perfect expression, still the criteria that merit standing ovations?
I say ‘provisional’ in the sense of perfection’s being a dynamic rather than a static state. The bottom-line is this: If excellent though flawed performances can elicit standing ovations, how then do we applaud the truly great performances, those which realize that elusive, provisional perfection? By turning somersaults in the aisles? Such matters have increasingly been put to the fore in recent years. And in my own mind, the question was put yet once more. In dead earnest. For I was among the few in the house who did not stand.
“How come you’re not standing, either?” I playfully remarked with a twinkle, to the gentlemen next to me who also remained seated. This led to a nonplussed response from each, a struggle to quickly but definitively put a finger on something elusively and disturbingly not quite right about Ms. Wang’s otherwise near-perfect performance, something discomfiting and unpleasant, like an ill-fitting garment, something about . . . about the loud parts. Earlier, during intermission, my dear friend Bob Moon (our blogger) had joined me to compare listener experience. With a perplexed, concerned expression, he came over to check: Is he hearing things, or is there actually something ‘off’ about the loud parts? How come (another highly respected and distinguished Asian, female concert pianist) doesn’t sound like that?
Well, that's four of us, 'hearing things.' Right from the beginning of her recital, I had thought for sure it was me, my own problem, and blamed myself for being so hyper-critical as to be unhappy with her loud-fast, the first of which was in the Schubert/Liszt. But it became apparent that what we each were hearing was not imaginary, and we were not being overly critical --- nor was it an assumption attributable to faulty, diminished tracking abilities in 'older people's hearing,' for the two gentlemen next to me were quite younger. "Can't really get what she's saying clearly"... "maybe the loud parts were too loud?"... "she was playing too fast, maybe?"... "sounded flat and harsh"... was the gist that triggered our lively post-performance discussion in the lobby, the two lovely gentlemen David and Neil, Bob our blogger, and I. (Yes, absolutely, a gentleman can be lovely, just as a woman can be handsome, both qualities being expressive of distinctive presence and generosity of spirit.)
Throughout the program, every extended loud-fast passage blazed by in a wall of sound that wanted more sculpted definition, especially the loud-fast pieces. Orchestras, conductors, soloists, are taking speeds faster these days . . . because they can. Their ‘clocks’ tick faster. Their ‘neuros’ transmit with high-speed frequencies. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible and downright painful, almost, for people of contemporary generations to slow down. Racing through her runs, Ms. Wang was wont to crank it up even faster, when she should have instead held her tempo. In each of the Ravel Left Hand Concerto’s glissandi, she finished those phrases ahead of MTT and the orchestra. Throughout last evening’s recital, every run started off speedy and got speedier.
The vibration level, active consciousness, and thus functional dexterity of the more recent generations of artists is such that, steadily, over time, we have been hearing music played at ever-faster tempi. Compare a contemporary performance of, say, a Brahms symphony --- Simon Rattle’s recent concerts here with the Berlin Phil come to mind --- with that of a Walter, for example, or even a Toscanini. And as to loud, the tensile strength of body in today’s generations are marvels of contained power and resilience, where the massive shoulders of an Alicia de Laroccha in the producing of big sound likely will soon become an anachronism. So, the capacity for loud and fast may be here to stay, be it sometimes the incoherent blur. However, it is possible to make even the most fleet fortissisimo sensible, sensical, intelligible, and ultimately, musical.
The performer hopes for, while the audience expects, an instrument of clear and crisp sonority, such that forte massive chords and running passages don’t sound dulled in palette, but retain their transparent sparkle and clear hues even as the sound decays. Remarkably, Ms. Wang’s instrument was not among the finest Steinways I have listened to, in voice, sonority, color, and clarity. After all, her artistic caliber is such that she should have only the very finest piano available. But unless you travel with your own, personal piano/s (Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman each fly with not one, but several, of their own concert grands when on tour), you’ll only get whatever you can, even from among the very best pianos, those which are the artist instruments. This is ever the musical dilemma and handicap for pianists.
Nonetheless, it goes without saying, that innate musicality overrides and redeems any less-than-ideal instrument. Especially critical, musicality in the loud-fast assures that music does not present as merely a flat, undifferentiated wall of massed, unintelligible sound. The faster the speed and the louder the volume, the more exacting the expectation and demands, such as the highly nuanced shaping and unfurling of a line’s contours, the finely controlled dynamics of varying intensities through the sequence of notes, the elastic, fine-gauge adjusting of acceleration/deceleration, to create the illusion of an arc in the unspooling of a phrase.
Musical music is executed as curves within curves, within one grand arch that falls away and rises into another great curve, containing its smaller arcs and contours in the rise and fall of a phrase, a breath, a gesture. Even angular music such as the evening’s Prokofiev sonata is intrinsically built with bends and twists. Shaping and phrasing breathe, provide structure, support meaning, in the loud-fast’s sometimes dangerous headlong, mindless plunge. Ms. Wang’s musicality was exquisitely, wondrously present in the beautiful cadenza so poignant and tender, in last week’s Ravel Left Hand Concerto with MTT and our Orchestra, but it turned up missing in the second movement of that concert’s Stravinsky Capriccio. But while her pianism was otherwise gratifyingly musical in her SF Symphony program, it was strangely missing again, or indiscernible, in all the loud-fast of last evening’s entire program.
But wait! Maybe it was because of her pedaling. How the sustaining pedal is used is an utterly critical factor, and nowhere as crucial as in the loud-fast. Knowing piano players have intricate footwork going on the pedal, variously called “half-pedaling,” “feathering,” “tapping.” Constantly lifting the foot, just a tad at key points, clears the flooding mush and smearing of harmonics, maintains clarity and definition. The faster and louder the music, the more dangerous is lead-footed pedaling, for it destroys the integrity of brilliant, virtuosic, high-speed fortissimo passages.
Fortissimo chords can be played to carry bell-like clarity of the sonic mass, where the chord’s tones and intervals retain pitch differentiation through the decay phase. Though hands might come crashing forcefully down upon the keys, those hands immediately lift off the keybed, like a bounce into and off the keys. This raises the hammers off the strings, allows the strings’ full vibration, defines the pitches, and creates a richly complex, ringing sonority that carries across the hall and resonantly fills the ambient space, glorious sound reflecting off every surface. Conversely, pushing downward into the keybed for the loud, holding down onto the keys, such technix interfere with the mechanical lifting of hammers from the strings, constricts resonant harmonics, dulls color, dampens sonority’s amplitude, and imparts a harsh timbre to the chords.
At the Symphony’s concert last week, a falling passage near the beginning of Ms. Wang’s Ravel Left Hand Concerto was pedaled too deeply toward the floor, and without enough lifting. That may have been merely idiosyncratic. But last night’s recital left no doubt that every loud-fast in the entire program needed more judiciously placed and shallower pedaling. On the other hand, a primarily loud-fast work like last evening’s Prokofiev uses very little pedal, but requires exquisite shading, well-contoured shaping, finely judged phrasing, with almost constantly springy, bouncing lift-off from the keys. In this respect, wanting such refinements and technix, Ms. Wang’s Prokofiev resulted in a clangorous, recognizable though unintelligible performance, unfortunate in that such glittering, skittering music absolutely needs not only to be “loud,” shall we say, but clear.
Interestingly, Ms. Wang plays louds the same way my friend does (another Asian, female concert pianist), that is, pushing down into the keybed, and the holding down of keys. I’d noticed this kind of technic before among pan-Asian pianists, more pronounced with women than men. Could it be a commonality of training that attempts to compensate for the slight physical frame of Asian women? For the massive sonics of Western classical music? For the power, stamina, and endurance required for huge concert halls and orchestras? For media-driven, high-speed jet travel and tightly booked, worldwide performance schedules? Do concert artists suffer from jet lag, yet the show must go on anyway? Et cetera? I don’t know.
I do know, however, that the springy ‘bounce’ in the forte/fortissimo attack on the keys spares the arm and wrist by its reflexive motion, that this is a technique which accords synergistically with the physiology’s natural biophysics of movement, as well as the mechanical and acoustical physics of the piano. And I do know that such an approach bypasses entirely the supposed problems attributed to the small frame, spare upper body, thin shoulders, tiny wrists, and to the need for sustained sonic power, physical endurance, and performance stamina.
Certainly, there must be Asian paradigms of musical training and performance in the Western classical tradition, of which we have only limited or no awareness on these shores at this time --- not to even mention the abstruse cultural differences, exceedingly subtle yet highly distinctive, that contextualize the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese character and temperaments, which I can sometimes discern in the individual performer’s uniquely consummate artistry.
In fairness, however, I should also explain that I am Asian (American-born), a female pianist classically trained, and have lived with concerts and recordings in critically attentive, not passive, listening since early childhood. In matters musical, therefore, and even extra-musical --- I hear many observations regarding Ms. Wang’s stage presence, for example --- there is a certain compassionate appreciation, grounded especially in a particular empathy for the Asian-born and -trained performing musician in Western art music.
So there we were, sitting at the closing of Ms. Wang’s recital when most everyone else was standing. Maybe it was due to our position in the hall, that the four of us experienced a thrilling though less-than-ideal musical offering. Maybe the hall’s acoustic peculiarities did not flatter Ms. Wang’s high-speed forte/fortissisimo, to sensitively attuned, discriminating listeners sitting in the wrong place. The orchestra section, those main floors in many concert and recital halls, is notorious for seemingly irremediable “dead spots,” where music’s complex properties seem to dull, diffuse, and lose differentiation. They’re the concert-hall analogue to the doldrums of the equatorial tropical oceans. Were we four adrift in such a musical dead spot perhaps, sitting in the acoustic doldrums of Herbst Theatre? I don’t think so. For, apart from the loud-fast, Ms. Wang’s musicality and the hall’s sonics seemed beyond reproach.
So, in the final analysis, whether it was the piano, the natural speediness of her generation, her pedaling, her fortissisimo attack, or even the hall, whether every loud-fast exhibited a lapse of her otherwise considerable musical sensibility, notwithstanding, Yuja Wang is quite simply a stupendous talent and exceptional artist. When her loud-fast refines, defines, and clarifies, she will be an extraordinary artist. Though her performance, in the seasoned assessment of the four of us (David and I as pianists, blogger Bob a music-writer/CD-reviewer, Neil a connoisseur of music), was flawed in the loud and fast and thus did not merit a standing ovation, it certainly was near-perfect. As such, therefore, her performance did indeed merit the sitting ovation we gave her, loud and clear. :::


Yuja Wang in Recital
Sunday, 20 June 2010, 7PM
Herbst Theatre

Franz Schubert/ Franz Liszt Schubert Song Transcriptions, S. 558
Robert Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13
Alexander Scriabin Preludes: B-flat Major, Op 11, No.11
B minor, Op. 13, No. 6
G-sharp minor, Op. 11, No. 12
Etude in G-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 9
Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1
Serge Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82


Fredric Chopin Waltz in C# minor (encore)
Alessandro Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455 (encore)


1 comment:

  1. OMG! No, no, NO!! The Scarlatti encore is by Domenico, not Alessandro!!!

    Error stands corrected.