Clearing out old files this week I came across an article called ‘A Talk with Gyorgy Sebok’, from a 1976 edition of Piano Quarterly. It was an interview of the Hungarian piano guru Gyorgy Sebok by a colleague, pianist Seth Carlin. Sebok taught in Indiana University; Carlin at Washington University in St Louis. Alas, neither man is still with us, and the magazine has disappeared too.
The 1976 interview ended with a question which, although posed 40 years ago, struck me as more relevant today than ever. Sebok’s answer is equally relevant:
Seth Carlin: ‘Mr Sebok, you have devoted great energies to developing the musical talent of the oncoming generation, but aren’t you concerned about the young musician who graduates from a conservatory today, and goes into a world where there is really little or no room for him or her?’
Gyorgy Sebok: ‘It depends how you see it. It’s like overpopulation, which scientifically may be true, but you can drive hundreds of miles without seeing anything besides a gas station – so the overpopulation is not obvious. There are a great number of musicians – that’s obvious if you are in Indiana University and you are in one building. But if you travel, then you have the feeling that music is a very rare treasure, that there is no overpopulation of musicians in a real sense. If everyone wants to go round the world, or give a recital in Carnegie Hall, then we are too many. But if we want to live in different communities small and big, and teach and perform music, then we are not enough.’
Yesterday I spoke about my book ‘Sleeping in Temples’ at the Wigtown Book Festival (see photo), a merry gathering in ‘Scotland’s Book Town’ in the rolling hills of Dumfries and Galloway. Arriving there for the first time in driving rain and wind wasn’t the perfect introduction, but when the sun came out I was better able to appreciate the main square with its improbable number of attractive bookstores.
For the talk, my interviewer Robert Philip wanted to include my chapter on ‘What is Interpretation?’ He suggested I take a short example and illustrate – with the help of a piano – some of the issues a player has to consider when preparing the music for performance.
I chose the opening passage of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. As far as I know, it’s the first concerto which turned the usual format upside-down: instead of a long orchestral introduction, followed by the piano soloist entering with a dramatic flourish, Beethoven starts with the piano on its own. The first six bars of solo piano are marked to be played quietly and gently.
What is one to make of that? What scene is the pianist setting as they play the now-famous opening theme? Is it in the nature of private musing, as though the performer didn’t realise there was a big orchestra sitting behind them? Is it a kind of challenge to the orchestra? Is the pianist allowed to take time and linger over certain beats, or will that confuse matters? Are the little repeated notes to be dry, matter-of-fact, or tentative, mysterious – even pleading? Should the famous opening G major chord be played with all the notes going down at the same time, or ‘rolled’ from bottom to top as Beethoven may have expected to hear it? And so on.
I did a brief illustration, showing different ways to play the theme. Afterwards, at the book signing, a number of people told me how fascinating they found that demonstration. They said it was very hard to get access to this kind of behind-the-scenes information if you are not a musician. They suggested I should do more of it, and I’m going to think about doing so.
The weather has been extremely humid lately and my piano doesn’t like it. I have a little device which registers the temperature and humidity; for weeks it has been announcing the humidity as 75%.
I have an older piano with ivory key coverings (newer pianos have plastic or resin keys). When the air is damp, the thin ivories start to detach themselves from the wooden key surface and – still attached to the key surface at both ends- ‘bow upwards’. When the strain becomes too great, the ivories can spring into the air, sometimes snapping as they do so.
If they detach in one piece, they can be glued back on. If they snap in the middle, it’s a more difficult matter and leaves a ‘scar’ (see photo). Over the past couple of weeks we’ve had to glue back several ivories. One of them has disappeared altogether. Sometimes I find broken ivories on the floor or elsewhere in the room, a surprising distance away from the piano. But this ivory has just vanished. I think it must have worked its way into the interior of the piano mechanism, where my tuner will have to find it.
Over the years I’ve read in travellers’ memoirs about pianos shipped out to the tropics, where excessive moisture in the climate has quickly ruined them. I’ve always been relieved that I don’t have to worry about such things, but now I feel I’m getting a little taste of them.
I’m back from the 26th annual festival of the Gaudier Ensemble in Dorset. Over the years this gathering of chamber music specialists from around Europe has come to feel quite special. As our lives have become increasingly complicated, it feels remarkable that each year the same people are able to find a week to converge on the English countryside to rehearse and give four days of concerts in the lovely old church of Cerne Abbas. (In the photo, some of us are rehearsing one of the Mozart piano concertos which the composer suggested could be done with single strings instead of an orchestra.) I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the festival 26 years ago, but even I have been taking part for 24 years!
It also feels quite special that many members of the audience have been attending our concerts for quarter of a century. They often come up to us and recall individual concerts from years ago, commenting on things that we’d forgotten. ‘The year the lights went out.’ ‘The year we all cried during the late-night concert.’ ‘The year you forgot your concert clothes and had to borrow things from people in the village!’ As I survey the audience from my position on stage I relish seeing the familiar faces of people who’ve made the effort once again to be there. They too sometimes travel from far afield to hear our concerts – not just from other parts of England but from other countries.
Amongst the musicians, the conversation kept circling back to Brexit. The players from outside the UK are still baffled by the UK’s decision. Though we were all gathered together once again from our various nations, we Brits did feel subtly different on this occasion. We were glad to have wonderful European chamber music to unite us.
On Tuesday the Guardian had an article about the growing number of stand-up comedians who bring a ‘work in progress’ to the Edinburgh Fringe instead of a fully-developed show. During their run, which could be anything up to three weeks, they ‘develop’ the show, which goes on to tour elsewhere. Sometimes this ‘in-progress’ status is reflected in a cheaper price; sometimes not. Their audiences are big and loyal enough that they’ll pay good money to hear something still being tweaked.
I looked through the 400+ pages of the Fringe brochure to see how comedy runs compare to classical concerts. The difference was striking. Compare the stand-up comedian to the solo pianist. Typically the comedian will perform the same show night after night in the same venue. The pianist, however, will have a single concert date. There are variants: sometimes a group of musicians will present daily concerts, but conscientiously varying the permutations of performers and the programme (as happens also at most music festivals). But if you study either the Edinburgh International Festival brochure or the Fringe brochure it’s clear that the typical concert happens once only.
Why is music so different from theatre? Why does a visiting orchestra come for one night while a visiting theatre company stays for two weeks? There’s a huge mismatch between the amount of preparation that goes in to a single concert and the moment of performance. In that respect music is like the Olympics, where, as we’ve been constantly reminded of late, four or more years of training culminates in a burst of high-profile competition. For the classical solo or chamber musician, too, the single concert is just the outward and visible sign of an awful lot of private practice. Yes, they may have the chance to play the programme elsewhere, but maybe not for a while, and when they do they’ll have to prepare it all over again. Admittedly, touring offers a chance to repeat the same programme in different cities, but touring is only an occasional thing for most musicians. Apart from the theatrical genres of opera and stage musicals, classical musicians have no equivalent of the theatrical ‘run’.
Therefore every concert is a unique chance to make your mark, and every classical performer is obsessed with the fact. If you play less than your best on this one night, you may never be invited back. This fact shapes most musicians’ lives. I can’t even imagine going on stage in front of the paying public with a programme advertised as ‘work in progress’. If I want to try out a concert programme, I do so in private and for free.
Would I prefer a long run of concerts and the chance to try stuff out over several weeks, with the audience’s agreement that I can experiment? I can hardly even imagine it because my professional life has been organised along such utterly different lines. Has any musician tried it, and if so, what was the result? I’d love to hear.