Sunday, May 23, 2010

The First Rock Star

I went to Ten Grands at  Benaroya Hall in Seattle last night.  The concept at first seemed not so interesting--ten grand pianos on the stage?  But the execution proved to be really really fun to watch.  There was quite a bit of variety in the music offered both collectively and singly by the pianists.  As someone who had taken piano for 11 years to my junior year in high school, I really enjoyed watching them perform together.  But as someone who sang in choirs for 30+ years--in junior high, high school, college, and in my church choir until my cancer paralyzed my vocal chord--it was a riot watching the pianists try to play together.  Because, really,  pianists are used to going solo either with orchestras or jazz bands or on their own.  To be honest, they are prima donnas.  They are not used to working with other pianists, unless it is 4 hands at one piano.  So they have a hard time seeing what their 9 compatriots are doing not only because they are used to being the star but because their hands are all hidden behind their huge instruments.  As a result, the performance, at times,  tended toward 'mud,' as my friend Mary put it.  But the solo pieces, and those where youth choirs or string players joined in were very great fun.  I could not tell you which piece I enjoyed the most, as the variations in styles and forms made it all go by quite quickly. 

There was an emphasis last night, on Frederic Chopin.  One, because it is the 200th anniversary of his birth.  But two, because his compositions are the kind of pieces that classical pianists love to play.  Large, demanding, emotional works that wring the most out of the performer and the audience.  I know Ken Russell thought that Franz Liszt was the first rock star, as he tried to demonstrate in his movie, Lizstomania.  Liszt may have been a rock star too, but Frederic Chopin was the first real rock star.  After all, he served as Liszt's mentor.

Here's what The International Library of Music, published in 1936, has to say about Chopin in their biography of him:

Liszt describes Chopin as of middle height, slim, with flexible limbs which appeared almost fragile; delicately shaped hands and very small feet; an oval face of pale, transparent complexion, crowned with long silky hair of light chestnut color; tender brown eyes, which lit up strangely  when he spoke; a finely cut aquiline nose; a gracious smile, and a soft and usually subdued voice, and a general distinction of manner which caused him involuntarily to be treated en prince.  The nature of his charm is felicitously told  by George Sand [his lover for ten years].  "The delicacy of his constitution," she says, 'rendered him interesting in the eyes of women.  The full yet graceful cultivation of his mind, the captivating originality of his conversation, gained for him the attention of the cleverest men; while the less highly cultivated liked him for the exquisite courtesy of his manner."

...There has been no surer sign of decadence in an art than to allow the love of color or ornament to obscure the sense of form; and it is characteristic of Chopin's refinement that his music, so original in its inspirations, so fanciful and elaborate in its ornamentation, never becomes formless.  Its tenderness was no doubt the secret of the extraordinary influence he exerted over women, and of his keen sympathy with everything that concerned them; but it never would have compelled, as it did, the instant admiration of musicians of every shade of sensibility had it not possessed the far higher quality of absolute conformity to artistic good taste.

Chopin died at 39 of tuberculosis, and his heart was buried in Warsaw, Poland, while his body was interred at the Pere LaChaise cemetery in Paris, where he had spent his adult life.  I discovered Pere LaChaise when I was a poor student travelling and then living in Europe in 1978-79.  It is a fabulous cemetery, home to the likes of Heloise and Abelard (together in death!), Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, and dozens more.  When I went, it was initially because it was free, and very few things are free in Paris.  But I was enchanted by the fancy graves and found not just Chopin but Jim Morrison, another more contemporary rock star, buried there (although Morrison's resting place is ill treated by his admirers). Pere LaChaise is well worth your while to tour on your next visit to Paris, despite being a bit out of the way.  Especially if you visit Edith Piaf's grave.  There will be a number of French folk gathered around 'the Little Sparrow' to grieve and reminisce, and they are only too happy to talk about her to you, a friendliness you may not find anywhere else.  But I was struck in 1978 and again in 2007, when I returned to Pere LaChaise, at how beautifully Frederic Chopin's grave is kept up by his admirers in Paris.  He truly was their first rock star.  And a well deserved one at that.  Here is his grave:

1 comment:

Susan said...

Pianists prima donnas? I beg to differ -although granted I'm more of an accompanist and certainly not a concert pianist. We have to put up with a lot in order to stay with some of the prima donna vocalists and instrumentalists we accompany :) I was in one of those mega-piano concerts years back; I'll never forget the wild guy leading it! Loved your bit on Chopin; so many of the great classical composers have really interesting life stories.