When I was young, I took piano lessons for almost ten years, and now I can't play a lick. I can pick out "Mary Had A Little Lamb" for my grandson, but that's about it. The only way I could have been a worse piano player is if my fingers had been webbed.
But I love piano music, listen to it all the time, and have been the happy consumer of a banquet of piano playing lately. Some new players, some old favorites. But there is something about the ability of great players to coax not just wonderful music, but deep thoughts and complex emotions, from the 88 keys on a Steinway that never fails to move me.
Here's what I've been seeing lately:
I've blogged about my admiration for Jarrett's artistry before. (See Blog #27 – "Five Great Performers," Blog #34 – "Spending My Amoeba Gift Certificate," and Blog #87 – "My Paris.") So I was extremely happy to score a third-row, keyboard-side seat to Jarrett's solo concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
I went alone. I don't drag the TG to jazz or Wagner, neither of which she particularly enjoys ... though I occasionally slip in a "Rhine Journey" or "Forest Murmurs" or "Prize Song" that she likes.
Every Jarrett show of solo improvisations is unique, and every one is recorded. Each concert could bring something of unsurpassed beauty and invention. That's why his "Koln Concert" is the largest selling piano jazz recording of all time. But Jarrett is famously prickly and is often at odds with his audiences. He doesn't like coughing, and he especially doesn't like audience members taking his picture.
Here is his famous tirade at the Umbria Jazz Festival in July, 2007
It became so well-known in jazz circles that it was set to music by The Industrial Jazz Group
So you can imagine his reaction when someone snapped TWO photographs of him before he even started playing at the Walt Disney. Keith then gave the audience a ten-minute speech, saying essentially that the picture-taking had just ruined the night for him. And it turned out that he wasn't really kidding.
He didn't have a great night. He started with a long, angry section with many ebbs and flows. He played some Debussy-like sections, some blues-like vamps. All night there were some haunting stretches as he searched the keyboard for musical truths. But he never really struck a deep vein of gold all night, the way I've heard so many times. His encores were a lovely "Little Girl Blue" (the Rodgers and Hart standard that was one of my mother's favorite songs), an up-tempo "Summertime" (paging Billy Stewart), and a last song that I didn't know.
Keith is seventy-one and has come back from a crippling bout of chronic fatigue syndrome. He seemed kind of tired that night at Disney Hall. Or maybe that audience member with the phone camera took the wind out of his sails at the beginning, and he never really got launched.
Nonetheless, I was glad to be there. I just judge him by a very high standard.
Here's better stuff, from better days:
"I Loves You, Porgy" – live in Japan – absolute magic
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" – live in Japan -- ditto
"Summertime" – his up-tempo version
"Danny Boy" – just beautiful
and prickly Keith's speech the NEA Jazz Masters Awards in 2014
I had never heard of Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov until recently, and I still don't know how to pronounce his name. But I love his piano playing. Born in 1990, Abduraimov is younger than either of my kids. That makes him young.
A little listen to his playing, and it is obvious that this is a major talent. As The New York Times put it, "Mr. Abduraimov will, I expect, have a long and distinguished career." I agree.
Since he won the grand prize at the 2009 London International Piano Competition, he's been on a steady trajectory to the top of the classical music world. He's played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic, and under conductors like Vladimir Ashkenazy and Valery Gergiev.
At the Walt Disney, the TG and I heard him play Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No.2, a piece that I am unfamiliar with. (Heck, there's a ton of classical music that I don't know.) But Abduraimov tore through the music passionately and precisely. He was supported beautifully by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest conductor, 75 year-old Dutch old pro Edo de Waart. It was wonderful to see the interplay between two musician who are separated by almost fifty years of age but are united in music.
In the pre-concert lecture, de Waart commended the young pianist as not just an "instrumentalist" but as a real "musician." It shows in his playing.
Here's some of this young dynamo's work:
Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No.2 – the piece we saw him perform with the LA Philharmonic
a fragment of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1
Tchaikovsky's Nocturne in D, Op.19, No.4
Liszt – Scherzo and March, S. 177 – astounding technique
I've seen the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet a few times, and he never disappoints. At the age of 55, he is at the peak of an international career that includes performances with most of the world's great orchrestras and collaborations with artists like Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, and Joshua Bell.
This time, the TG and I saw him at a Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsal in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Seeing these rehearsals is fun. This was our first at the Walt Disney; the others we've seen at the Hollywood Bowl.
We saw Thibaudet with a young conductor from the Czech Republic (or "Czechia" as it is now to be known), thirty-four year-old Jakub Hrusa, who was making his Disney Hall debut.
As I mentioned, my knowledge of classical music is spotty, like my knowledge of everything else, come to think of it. And when I saw that Thibaudet was going to play Grieg's Piano Concerto, nothing rang a bell. Usually I listen to music that we're going to hear in concert beforehand, but not this time. So when the music began, I realized that it was one of the most famous piano pieces of all time.
In fact, its opening cadenza and theme were used for comic effect by Frank Loesser in "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying." So I've known some of this music since I was eleven. It's the kind of music that used to be used in Warner Brothers' cartoons. Grieg wrote it when he was twenty-four.
Thibaudet playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major
Thibaudet playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No.2
Thibaudet playing "Dawn" from the soundtrack to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE – the recent Keira Knightly version – music by Dario Marianelli
I couldn't find Thibaudet's Grieg, so here's another sweet one:
Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 – a ninety year-old Arthur Rubenstein, with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
"Rosemary" from HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING – which uses Grieg's Piano Concerto as a musical joke at 2:04
It's one of the regrets of my life that I can't play a musical instrument. I bet it would be fun, to make music with your friends, to paraphrase Willie Nelson. But not everyone gets to have everything. I'll keep playing my keyboard and make the music that I can make.