Friday, May 25, 2007

The Last of the Romantic Pianists - Another Chance Encounter

Hassan has sent this account, which I love, of a chance encounter which led to his meeting Louis Lortie:

So it's really not all that much... In April I attended a recital by Louis Lortie, who was playing a programme of Liszt, Chopin and Thomas Adès at the Dinkelspiel Recital hall on campus. The first piece he played was Liszt's transcription to the overture to Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser. I hadn't heard it at the time, but he played it like a god, and I enjoyed it very much. He had this uncanny ability to make the attack and decay of adjacent notes melt away leaving a fluid singing line floating above the other notes. I don't think I exaggerate when I say I'd never heard that effect before. Anyway, he finished, got up to enthusiastic applause, bowed and went away. I had managed to get a seat up in front, but it was way off to the side. So it really wasn't much of a view from there, one could only see his back, elbows and maybe a bit of finger if you're lucky. Someone from my aisle probably thought the same thing and left to take a seat up front in the center. Lortie came back onstage and played Adès' Traced Overhead. Love that piece; it kind of sounds like air bubbles leaving sinking debris from a shipwreck. More applause and he goes offstage. He comes on again. Before it's too late, I also switch seats and end up sitting beside the man who did so before me. Lortie waits for me and then plays Adès' Darknesse Visible and Lizst's Vallee d'Obermann. He's done, lights come on, and now it's time for intermission.

"What did you think?" I ask the man. "Oh marvelous playing. No one has that kind of sound anymore. It's a lost art". I disagree, saying I find his kind of luminous tone similar to Grigory Sokolov's. Sokolov? he asks. Yeah, and we talk about Sokolov for a bit. He seems to know his stuff, so I ask if he plays piano. He tells me that he used to be professional pianist, played concerts, did the touring thing, but now he's retired and only plays at private recitals. We leave the concert hall, still chatting. I run into a friend and he says he'll be outside and we can talk more if I like. I join him outside the lobby after a bit, where he's lighting up a cigarette.

"Oh you smoke?" He nods, exhales. Offers me a cigarette. "These are some of the best cigarettes in the world." Tells me he got them from Belgium. He give me a light. No joke, they were really good. So good I could make this a story about how a random encounter can lead you to your best cigarette ever, not about how you meet people that offer you shortcuts to Louis Lortie masterclasses in Europe, but I should remain focused. We chat for a bit, and I learn that he's the director of the La Jolla piano institute. Strongly believes that good tone is the key to proper piano technique, I differ that dynamic control is, but he insists. We go on to talk about the golden age of piano, Chopin's style of teaching tone production, and how it's dying out. One of his teachers descended from the line of Chopin piano students. I mention that Alkan took over Chopin's students after Chopin died, and this is new to him. I tell him about my plans (dreams really) of applying to Juilliard's master's program in piano sometime after I graduate. Tells me he has two sons doing so already, but adds, "If you really want proper technique, you should attend one of Louis' classes. He's got the real thing. He teaches masterclasses, and he does one once a year in Italy. You should contact Louis' manager, [the name of Lortie's manager, I forget] and attend one of these masterclasses." Wow.

We keep going until the intermission bell is rung, where we then enter the hall and take our seats again. Lortie comes on and plays Chopin's Nocturne No. 17 and his Sonata No. 3 with no break in between. Tumultous applause when he's done. He comes back on, and plays a Chopin étude for an encore, I don't know what number. My friend asks me if I'd like to meet Lortie backstage, and of course I say yes. Following his assertive lead backstage, we get rebuffed by security. My friend insists that Lortie's expecting him, security insists that he can't go any further, and defiant, he returns with me to the hall. He's telling me that the secret to good tone is light touch when finally Lortie appears in casual wear. He apologizes for keeping us waiting, and tells us that he accidentally locked himself in his dresser. In bad French my friend speaks complementary of me ("Il est très interessé!"), and they talk a little bit about Adès' Jewish origins that he apparently Adès' rarely admits to. Lortie has to go, so does my friend. I scrawl his contact info on my programme (now lost!) and leave.

Voila! And there we have it.

ps: Oh, feel free to edit any of this however you like...

pps - an apology:

I fear I might have exaggerated a little. Is my friend technically one of the last few Romantic pianists? I guess it depends on how you define the term. It usually refers to the early 20th century pianists particularly the famous ones, and Horowitz was viewed as the last of that generation, so technically, there are probably no more now. People claim Kissin's one, but other than his repertoire choice, I think it's a misnomer. That free-flowing, interpretive style in exchange for an odd flub or two manner of playing has been out for a while, note-perfect performances with minimalistic box-step rubato (if any at all) is in. But I guess, either way my friend was roughly between 60 or 70, and he had a very old-fashioned set of pianistic priorities. So a qualified yes for either way of looking at it probably sums up to an overall yes. But you decide...

[WOW. I wouldn't have thought of Kissin in those terms, no. I heard him once in Berlin. If there was anyone in the audience who hadn't noticed that the piano is a percussive instrument, the penny must have dropped two minutes into the programme.]


If you're wondering how it all ended up, I still haven't gotten in touch with my friend, even though a bit of internet sleuthing should clinch me his contact info. At some point I will, but I don't think I'm ready for a Louis Lortie masterclass yet though it'd still be nice to follow up on our conversation.

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