Notes of a Working Pianist

Beth Levin

[April 2004.]

I got back from the Balkans in early March and began practicing a sea of music for concerts scheduled for May and June. I felt so behind in my preparation, anxiety set in with its cousin, insomnia. I began pathological bouts of list-making — the Chopin group, the Schumann group, the 21st-century music, the recital program, the lecture-recital. In the middle of telephone chats, I was apt to recite my columns to the vague discomfort of friends. For me it had become a ritual for the calming of runaway nerves.

So, naturally, just as I’m a few chords short of entering Bellevue for observation, the telephone rings and a conductor speaks. As any pianist knows, a conductor’s call has a special ring. The conversation: Do I know the Beethoven Third, can I play it in a month, we’ll speak again on his return from Europe, so yes, it’s a go. A few moments of pure elation. The anticipation of a concerto with orchestra is a sweet one. It gets the inner metronome beating faster. The Beethoven C minor concerto with a good chamber orchestra! Then panic. On top of everything else, I now need to reconnect with a great work and bring it to life as swiftly as possible.

The process took me back. I had performed the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a kid and later with the Seattle Symphony. The piece had settled into my bones, but my interpretation would be different now. Working on old repertoire is like visiting a former self, reliving old instincts and ideas, reinventing them and dragging them to a new place. The image from Bergman’s Persona of two superimposed faces haunted me. And I thought mental lists had made me crazy!

I searched the apartment but could not find my old score. Perhaps it was for the best. All those ancient markings and notions! I was forced to start afresh. The following day a sympathetic friend brought me a copy from the library, and despite its unyielding binding, I was able to make a start.

Beethoven performed his C minor concerto in 1803, and Czerny wrote up the event. Apparently Beethoven kept the pedal down through the entire first theme of the second movement and improvised the cadenzas with amazing bravura. I held fast to the image as I worked, so easy was it to envision him at the keyboard tearing into torrential passages of scales and arpeggios. I had forgotten how devastating the slow movement is, how the harmonies melt into each other as the singing lines scorch with their intensity. I admit it, I cried. But very soon my tears stopped, my efforts aiming more tellingly at making an audience cry.

The first movement begins with a fiery statement in C minor but in the next breath answers with the tenderest harmony. Throughout, Beethoven requires the starkest changes in mood even as he asks for subtle shifts of color. The performer is either lambaster or lamb. Along the way one negotiates pianistic feats of no small proportion but nowhere a superfluous note. Beethoven’s concision is legend, the form paramount. This distilled quality renders the moments of musical inflection and color within a melody even more poignant.

Each day I went deeper into the music and at the same time began to visualize the concert: the hall, the piano, what I would wear (my red silk to match the musical fire), how it would all play out. A concerto is such a jubilant form, a mix of chamber music — the interplay with orchestra — and peak solo moments, a time to speak above the crowd, to hold an audience with nothing but the power of the music’s voice.

I arrived at the point where I could play the concerto through for another good friend and throw around ideas of tempo, timing, recitative and technique. One advantage of age may be the ability to sense the most direct way to execute ideas at the instrument, having entered and departed from misleading paths. If one can maintain that youthful, passionate reaction to a piece of music while at the same time adding a touch of wisdom, one may actually arrive at a layered beauty.

So it happened that Maestro Silas Huff called me on his return from Germany, and we met, conductor and pianist. I played the concerto for him. We agreed on tempi and basic intent. The evening of the concert was to be a heady moment with an unanticipated pleasure age cannot quench: the standing ovation.

Brooklyn, NY.


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