Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Breathtaking Recital

Theodor Leschetizky, the famous pedagogue, reportedly said to Arthur Schnabel, his celebrated pupil, “You will never be a pianist, you are a musician.” I am happy to share that Ryo Yanagitani, the recital soloist at yesterday’s University of British Columbia Noon Hour concert, is both pianist and musician. January is perhaps too early for predictions, but I doubt there would be another concert of equal artistic merit in the coming months.

Mr. Yanagitani was born and raised in Vancouver, studied at the UBC School of Music, and subsequently at the Cleveland Institute and the Yale School of Music. Among his many accomplishments, he won the gold medal at the 10th San Antonio International Piano Competition, and received kudos from the judges for his performance of all four Ballades by Chopin. The powers that be at the university, in their infinite wisdom, have appointed him Assistant Professor at his alma mater, but only for a single year.

Glenn Gould used to say that playing in Toronto, his home town, inevitably terrified him. I do not know if Mr. Yanagitani felt such pressure yesterday, playing in front of former professors and fellow students, and perhaps many who watched him grow up, but he certainly acquitted himself wonderfully. One of the hallmarks of a true performer is the ability to make an emotional connection with the audience, even before a note is played. I have witnessed this quality in musicians like Arthur Rubinstein and Yo Yo Ma. Mr. Yanagitani possesses such a quality.

It takes a brave man to begin a recital with Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 101, one of the composer’s most elusive and technically challenging. I love the young pianist’s pacing in the first movement, as well as, from the first notes, the expressiveness of his playing. He certainly understood Beethoven’s instructions for the movement, Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung – somewhat lively, but with deep inner feeling or emotion. Innig is an impossible word to translate, but “deep innermost feeling” is the closest I can think of.

The Schumannesque second movement, which never fails to remind me of the middle movement of the Schumann Fantasy, was played with great confidence and panache, not to mention rhythmic incisiveness. Time stood still in the brief but emotionally packed Adagio, marked Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll - slowly and longingly – before a brief return to the opening theme of the first movement brings us to the energetic, at times exuberant 4th movement. Yanagitani negotiated his way through the complex contrapuntal thread of this movement like, to use Busoni’s words, a man who losses and finds himself at the same time.

Chopin’s 1839 Scherzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39 and Schumann’s beautiful Arabesque, Op. 18 followed the Beethoven.

Although written at around the same time, the two pieces could not be more different from one another. The Scherzo fluctuates between ghostly passages, filled with angry outbursts, to music of utter calmness and peace. His playing of the Scherzo is stunning, and he brought out the almost schizophrenic nature of the fluctuating mood of the piece. Yanagitani has always been a wonderful exponent of the music of Chopin. His debut CD - Alone With Chopin – demonstrates his flair for the Polish composer’s works.

The pianist paid tribute to one of his teachers, the great pianist Claude Frank, and related to the audience how Mr. Frank would always bring his audience to tears with the Schumann Arabesque. Mr. Yanagitani played Schumann’s miniature masterpiece with great feeling and understanding, and his performance was followed by a long silence before applause broke out. How rare and special it was to have that split second pause before applause broke the spell.

The pianist pulled out all the stops for the final piece of his programme, Let Hands Speak by Canadian composer Kelly Marie Murphy. This was the commissioned piece of the 4th Esther Honens Piano Competition, one that Mr. Yanagitani entered, and won the prize for best performance of this commissioned work – a great honour indeed. It is probably safe to say that the pianist owns this piece, which exploits, in the best sense of the word, all facets of pianistic technique. His incredibly virtuosic playing of this work won him a well deserved ovation from the appreciative audience.

To disprove the adage that a prophet is never appreciated in his own land, the University of British Columbia should seize this young artist and keep him here, before more prestigious institutions begin to clamour for his talents.

Ryo Yanagitani is clearly a great artist, and one who deserves to be heard by many and in many places.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Sound of Silence

How often have we seen someone jogging, or taking a walk, or walking their dog, wearing headphones, completely oblivious to his or her surroundings? How often have we walked by a car, windows rolled up, but feeling the pounding bass of the subwoofer? Restaurants, shops, malls, gyms, would inevitably give you, like it or not, layers of musical wallpaper. Of course this is not new, which is exactly why we need to talk about it.

No wonder we are a generation of poor listeners. When we are constantly bombarded with sound, our ears become desensitized. When we really have to sit down and listen to a musical performance, we become fidgety, we want to check our e-mail, we text, we look at our watch to see when the concert will be over.

I was attending a performance at London’s famed Covent Garden Opera House, and noticed the man sitting in front of me e-mailing on his Blackberry. Does he really need to pay £100 so that he could check his e-mail? Are we not able to sit and listen to Mozart for a few hours without having to “multitask”?

In at least the last decade, when I attend performances by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, I noticed that people would applaud between movements of a symphony or a concerto. I have often attributed that to a lack of awareness or education in how to behave in a classical music concert, but I now wonder whether the need to applaud is merely a need to do something, a release of pent-up energy. 

Radio stations have marketed themselves to broadcast music for “easy listening”. Listening is probably one of the most difficult things that engage our brains. Listening to music is far from being a passive endeavour, not just catching the beautiful melodies whilst tuning out the other “bits”. True listening involves our total concentration, and should, ideally, elicit an emotional response within us. When listening becomes secondary to other mental activities, music becomes nothing more than one of the many sensory inputs clamouring for our attention.

Arts organizations everywhere are suffering, not only because of the financial climate, but because more and more people are unwilling to spend an entire evening listening to live music-making. Music is something we can access with the press of a button, so why pay and have to “waste” an entire evening when we can hear music and check our e-mail and surf the web and read our e-book?

I believe that we can learn from parents who give their children “quiet time”, and thank goodness there are still parents upholding such a lifestyle. Only by learning not to be bothered by silence can listening becomes, once again, a special experience. For those who learn music, the time to practice is really such a time, a time for listening to one’s own playing, and not merely repeating the same notes over and over again. I love the German word for practice or rehearsal – probe – to probe, to delve into the deeper meaning of the music. In order to probe, one must first listen. In order to listen, one must first have silence.

In our age of sensory overload, it really is worth our while to make time for silence.