Letter from London
The 88-Tooth Monster
Tales of piano madness:
A lifetime of pianist envy
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Has anyone else noticed that the piano is becoming a vehicle for some of the best movies to hit the screen in recent years? Reaching back as far as "Five Easy Pieces" (all the "pieces" are Chopin gems and all from his book of Preludes), with Jack Nicholson actually at the keyboard, this adds up to a noble little sub-trend creeping up on us. With our guard down, we're being moved by the masters.
And it peaks this season with Roman Polanski's new entry at Cannes, "The Pianist," and Michael Haenke's "The Piano Teacher" out simultaneously. Cannes is buzzing with expectation over the Polanski story, which uses a Warsaw piano virtuoso to tell his own personal holocaust story. Again it's music by Chopin, with his heart-rending harmonies and angry Polonaises tearing at your emotions. I'm excited and I haven't even seen it.
These quality films come on top of a distinguished legacy that includes "Shine," "The Piano" and "The Competition," all of which rank in my personal Pantheon of highly watchable films.
As usual, the most memorable line is from Nicholson, who sneers at his girlfriend's praise of his Chopin (and I write from memory--I cannot find the script), "Okay, I pretended to show emotion and you pretended to soak it up. Who's kiddin' who?"
Maybe the attraction is my own weakness for the piano, the "88-tooth monster" as it's known, that is so near yet so far. I own a piano, but in 20 years of trying I can barely play as well as Nicholson or Holly Hunter (with silver fingertip clicking on the ivories) in "The Piano." I can, however, do the "Five Easy Pieces" of Chopin.
The piano was originally known as the pianoforte (the soft-loud) because it was the first keyboard instrument that allowed the player to color the sound by pressure and pedaling. As it grew in popularity and developed into the great nine-foot Steinway and Bosendorfer grands that we see on stage, it became known as the "orchestra in a box."
What pleases me about the film industry turning to the piano is that a wider audience is drawn to the great repertoire--at least Chopin's contributions--that the 19th century left us. Once into that kind of music it is an easy step to Prokofief and Stravinsky for some truly screaming, head-clearing sounds.
Admittedly some piano music is difficult to relate to. I heard a contemporary piece at London's Wigmore Hall recently that sounded like broken glass falling from a great height. But I have been known to end up with watery eyes after a performance. I once heard the young French pianist Francois Frederic-Guy play a Liszt sonata to a select group of 25 in a small room--a very 19th century setting on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. At the end, Francois was so shaken by what he had seen in the music that he
stood up and stared over the heads of the audience with a look of terror on his face. He was speechless for about five minutes in his dressing room where I visited him immediately. He had torn off his shirt and stood there in his black trousers and white t-shirt. A fancy lunch for invitees was to follow. I accompanied Francois, who was still sweating and shattered by the emotions of the music and clearly didn't give a damn that he hadn't put his shirt back on.
For many years as I was growing up I wondered what all this fuss was about. I was attracted by critics' language--the loose tiger at the keyboard, the terrible storm in the left hand--and wondered if I wasn't maybe missing some thrill that would be both cheap and legal. I even tried my hand at music criticism at San Jose State, but only my nastiness came out. I still remember ridiculing one poor music student for "flailing her arms like a windmill" and claiming that a young man "fairly butchered" his favorite
piece. I console myself by thinking they perhaps emerged with tougher hide to face the world of real critics.
But I came to the piano for even stupider reasons. About 25 years ago I saw Eubie Blake interviewed on "60 Minutes" and heard him play, at age 92, some wonderful ragtime pieces. I actually had one of those "How hard can this be?" moments. Believe me, it's hard. I have tried to learn lots of things in my life but nothing compares to the piano for difficulty. Eubie has been my hero ever since.
Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving
play lovers who are competing against each other in an international piano contest in
the 1980 film called
"The Competition," one of the
all-time great "piano" movies.
Note: They both lose.
As I have come to know a number of concert pianists in Europe, I have decided that nothing in life demands more of a performer in physical, mental and spiritual resources than the piano. The feat of memory alone is prodigious. The depth of feeling for interpretation--which of course is what it's all about--is a rare gift. Some pianists just don't have that dimension in their personality. They are said to have "good fingers," and that's the biggest insult you can hurl in this business.
At the London International Piano Competition recently, I saw Natasha Paremski, a 14-year-old girl from Fremont, California, perform two 30-minute recitals from memory, including some of the most demanding works from the classical repertoire. Unfortunately she was eliminated in the first round but carried in her little brain two more complete recitals plus two 40-minute piano concerti to be played with orchestra in case she ended up as a finalist. She and 20 other competitors had pushed themselves to the brink to be ready for this Competition, and yet I saw little sign of real nerves.
They are a class apart.
Some day I'm going to count the notes in a piano concerto and try to put a number on this incredible feat. It's not easy to get a concert pianist to explain how they do it. One friend, Martino Tirimo, said he actually sees the memorized printed page in front of him. Another, Rosalyn Tureck, sniffed: "You don't think of the notes, you get to the point that you understand what must come next, and you simply play it."
Yeah, sure. I tried that.
Devoting a lot of time and energy to classical piano is a road to nowhere, many will argue. Recitals today often play to half-empty halls, and CDs rarely make money for anyone unless you have been a temperamental artiste or otherwise scandalous in your career. The former Time Magazine music critic Michael Walsh also hates the fact that recorded music makes it easy for pianists to imitate each other. Individualism of the Horowitz variety is disappearing. Some pianists can't even recognize themselves when listening to a recording a few years old.
Others, including me, also wonder whether it might not be more satisfying to listen to a dodecatronic multi-speaker hi-fi system a la Bill Gates in the comfort of your home, rather than sitting next to some fidgety stranger.
Walsh has a radical solution he will implement when he becomes king of the world: destroy all recorded piano music and start over from the printed page.
But the narrowing audiences for the piano stand some chance of expanding. That most accessible art form, the cinema, now seems to be appreciating the great power this magnificent instrument holds when in the right pair of hands.
That's Joanne Dru, unlucky leading
lady cast opposite gay piano player Liberace in "Sincerely Yours" (1953). For some strange reason, this is not
among Johnson's all-time favorite
© 2002 by Michael Johnson. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. The photo from "The Competition" is © 1980 by Columbia Pictures, Inc. Photo from "Sincerely Yours" © 1953 Warner Bros.
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