Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?
Actually no one in my family is a musician; I never had pressure from my family, and the start of my adventure with music was one of the most natural processes – so natural that I still don’t know if I chose the music, or if the music chose me.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Definitely some things I’ve read – philosophical essays, some big German, France, Italian and Russian novels. And of course the holy books.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Every time disenchantment has made its way into my heart.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Always the next one!
But I’m still touched by some unbelievable experiences, such as my debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
The new one I’m going to practice!
But Mozart is without any doubt a great friend of mine.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I try to understand the changeable directions of my artistic wishes, and follow them. A concert programme should be a coherent spiritual journey, where different composers and music works interact and connect with each other, reaching a common vision at the end.
Some composers, however, are like lights in the dark for me: things may change on the surface, but deep inside they are always there. I can think of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann, who have always been very close to my soul.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
The Amsterdam Concertgebouw: that staircase seems to be the stairway to heaven!
Who are your favourite musicians?
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Grigory Sokolov and Sergiu Celibidache.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A concert with Maestro Gergiev in St. Petersburg. The concert was at 10pm, he arrived at 9.55pm. No rehearsal. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 on the menu. My debut with him and his orchestra. Live broadcast in all Russia. I wouldn’t wish those first five minutes on my worst enemy!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
To me, this kind of success simply doesn’t exist. Art is an never-ending creative process, and for this reason it will always be ahead of us, moving infinitely, and as finite humans we will never catch up!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Just one: that there can be no Beauty if it’s not connected to the Truth.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I don’t know where I’d like to be, but I certainly know where I’d like not to be: in the land of illusion. I wish to always remain devoted to the Truth.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
When a human being is able to connect with all his own innermost feelings.
What is your most treasured possession?
What is your present state of mind?
Federico Colli’s first album of Scarlatti Piano Sonatas is available now on the Chandos label.
Federico makes his Wigmore Hall debut on 1 November 2018. He will also be making his US debut at Ravinia Festival on 4 September 2018 and his New York debut at Lincoln Center on 2 December 2018.
Italian pianist Federico Colli is internationally recognised for his intelligent, imaginative interpretations and impeccable technique, praised for his ‘crystalline brilliance and translucence that takes you to the heart of everything he plays.’ (Gramophone)
Federico first came to prominence after winning the Salzburg Mozart Competition in 2011 and the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012. Since then, he has been performing with orchestras including the Mariinsky Orchestra, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, RAI National Symphony, BBC Symphony, Royal Scottish National, RTÉ National Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, Vienna Chamber, Camerata Salzburg, Klassische Philharmonie Bonn, Polish Radio National Symphony, Philharmonie Zuidnederland, Pomeriggi Musicali Orchestra, Orchestra della Toscana, National Philharmonic of Ukraine and Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira; at venues such as the Vienna Musikverein and Konzerthaus, Berlin Konzerthaus, Munich Herkulessaal, Hamburg Laeiszhalle, Beethovenhalle Bonn, NDR Landesfunkhaus in Hannover, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, Barbican Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Dublin National Concert Hall, Salle Cortot in Paris, Rudolfinum Dvorak Hall in Prague, Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, Teatro degli Arcimboldi in Milan, Lingotto in Turin, Philharmonic Concert Hall in Warsaw, Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro and the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St Petersburg.
As friends and followers of this blog probably know by now, I moved to Dorset at the end of May after 40 years living near or in London. We spent six weeks in temporary accommodation with my mother-in-law and our cat Monty, with just some basic furniture and effects to enable us to function and continue to work day to day (my husband runs his own business, working from home). Meanwhile, the bulk of our furniture and belongings went into storage. Three days after we moved into our new home on the island of Portland, near Weymouth, a large Pickfords van arrived to deliver our effects and left us a few hours later surrounded by packing boxes. The efficiency of Pickfords’ packing service ensured that every box was clearly marked, though some were rather ambiguous, such as “shoes and books” – which turned out to contain all the files associated with my London piano teaching practice. As I gradually unpacked, drawing our possessions out of their wrapping paper, a certain item – a book or a vase – would elicit a response or a Proustian rush of memory. Finding photos of my son as a baby and little boy were particularly poignant and special (he is now 20, living in his own flat and working as a chef at one of London’s top hotels).
It also occurred to me, as I worked my way through the boxes, that being reunited with these items, accumulated over a marriage of nearly 30 years and remembering how and why they came into our home and our joint lives, was like reacquainting myself with piano repertoire I had learnt previously. Just as I recalled why that mid-century white vase was special, so I also recalled what I liked about the repertoire and why I selected it in the first place. Some pieces go back a long way in my piano life – to when I was a teenager (Schubert’s D899 Impromptus, Mozart’s Fantasies), or when I was starting to play the piano seriously again as an adult (Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, Chopin’s Nocturnes). Others have more recent heritage – the music I learnt for my performance Diplomas or pieces played in concerts, which will always remain special because of their association with positive and enjoyable performances.
Returning to previously-learnt repertoire can be extremely satisfying – like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Some pieces reveal their subtleties and qualities more slowly than others and benefit from a cycle of work, rest, work, rest. A prime example for me is Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K511, a profoundly emotional and complex work which I revisited four times and will work on again this autumn, such is the work’s appeal and breadth. Picking up a piece again after a long absence often offers new insights into that work, revealing details one may not have spotted the first time round, while time away from the music – perhaps spent listening or reading about it – helps one crystallise thoughts and form new ideas to put into practice. It can be surprisingly easy to bring previously-learnt work back into one’s fingers, and this ease is a good sign – that one learnt the work deeply in the first place.
At the time of writing, my grand piano is still in storage with a friend in London. In the meantime, I have been enjoying listening to music I’ve previously learnt while also considering new repertoire for performance later this year.
Oh, and I’ve also been enjoying the fantastic scenery on Portland…..
The title of this post is a quote from an interview with pianist Gabriela Montero. Story-telling is about conveying a message and music is of course all about conveying messages, telling stories and stimulating the imagination, of listener and performer. Some pieces have evocative titles which hint at the story within, while others have nothing more than a generic word like ‘Sonata’ and a number. In concerts or recordings, programme/liner notes may tell the whole story of the music for the listener, or suggest certain events within the work, providing signposts, while leaving the listener to form a personal narrative during the course of the performance.
Composers create the sense of a narrative through musical devices such as dynamics and tempo, the contouring of phrases, melody, repetition, tension and release of harmonies, articulation, suggesting different instrumentation, and the use of pauses and silences. Because we spend our lives with stories, from the moment we are born, listening to them and sharing them, we absorb the patterns which make up stories: we sense when drama or tension is building and feel relief or pleasure at its release or resolution. These same patterns fill music: certain motifs or harmonies suggest particular moods, from triumphant joyful fanfares to moments of heart-stopping tenderness or poignancy; suspended harmonies take the listener to the brink, while the resolution brings wonderful sense of completeness or homecoming. The performer’s role is to act on all these devices to create a performance which is rich in expression.
A good story evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the audience, and a good story engages and absorbs the listener, excites and inspires them. It also makes them want to hear more of the music. But in order to convey the message to the audience, convincingly and expressively, we first have to form our own distinct narrative for every piece we play.
Asking ourselves questions about the music can pique the imagination to start forming a narrative –
- “What does this section make me think of?”
- “What emotions is are evoked in this passage?”
- “How does this harmony make me feel?”
Using words to describe the music, not technical/musical terms but other adjectives which spring to mind when considering the piece, also stimulate one’s vision. Sometimes it’s helpful write these words on the score as an aide memoir.
From the initial hearing of a work, we each form a personal story for it, based on what we have heard. It may not be exactly the same story the composer had in mind, it may be very far from their original vision, but in order to shape the music expressively and communicate the story of the music to the audience, it is important to form a narrative and vision for the music from the moment we start work on learning it. When we take ownership of this through deep practising, this narrative becomes internalised with all its drama and tension, its triumphs and tragedies, its love and death. This then enables us to bring the music vividly to life in performance and to communicate the stories to our audience.
In performance, we express our and the composer’s humanity to the audience, and we succeed in making our connection to the audience stronger through our storytelling.
I try to decorate my imagination as much as I can
– Franz Schubert
Long read guest post by Jack Kohl
I would like to share a love story – framed by two solitary moments (separated by fourteen years, two months, three days, and sixteen hours) before the same telephone in the same hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. But, to begin with, let me go back to the first meeting I had with the young woman.
I met Julie in a museum, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 22, 2003, a few minutes after 10:30 AM – just three days before the bicentennial of Mr. Emerson’s birth, and three days after my own thirty-third birthday. But I hope no one will think that I believe I can parallel Mr. Emerson on any greater terms than that small coincidence.
I had been to the house a number of times before. I lived by this man’s words and knew that his house was no more a shrine than that it was proof that such words as his could be written in common rooms. But on this trip, when I saw the lovely tour guide – I see her now in memory in a long black skirt and black cardigan sweater – I encountered a kind of feminine beauty that I did not expect to find while paying homage to idealism and to my stoic compass.
I knew the tour well, so in desperation I forced myself to invent an esoteric question about the lore of Concord. In view of an open closet, in which Mr. Emerson’s dressing gown was displayed, I asked, “Where had been the asylum, the poor house, in relation to these grounds?” It was an absurd question, but she tried to answer, and it helped her to remember me later. Two rooms on in the tour she asked me where I was from. I am from Long Island’s north shore. At the top of the second floor’s stairs the guide asked me, below a portrait of Charles Sumner, if I recalled the name of the man who had caned him on May 22, 1856. I was too flattered to be able to recall the name of Preston Brooks while under pressure. I then marveled at her voice and her fingertips as she pointed to a bust of Mr. Emerson by Daniel Chester French.
“That is the face that I shave,” Mr. Emerson is said to have observed upon assessing the skill of the likeness.
I parted from the guide in the main hallway of the house, but not before answering to the remainder of my trip’s itinerary – that I wished to visit the Old Manse on Monument Street and to pay my respects to Walden Pond – and noted her answers when I asked how it was that Concordians pronounced Sophia (So-fye-a) and the family name Keyes (Kize).
I left the house and the young woman, and I endured what I decided had to be a pardonable regret, for I could not think of how it could be rectified. I lived two hundred miles away. Still, I lingered for a few moments in Mr. Emerson’s garden, and thought of the young woman as she had stood below and pointed up to the old fire buckets on the tour. I considered the cliché that a mermaid would pause under sources of water – perhaps with a rose pinned behind one ear and a daisy behind the other – and though I had not even shaken her hand in goodbye, I imagined that some trace of her iridescence had remained upon my fingertips. For as I had listened to and looked upon this young woman, I fancied the frame of the house had been infused by her viscerality and that it had become as the wood of the world’s most ancient and pedigreed violins: on some mystic-microbial level still living, still infused with some vital and Greek-pure libidinous will even after centuries. I imagined this infusion spreading beyond the bounds of the house and spreading through all matter in the village, reaching unto the Musketaquid River just beyond the Mill Dam.
I drove down through Connecticut and returned home by crossing the Long Island Sound by ferry. It did not occur to me, then, that from Concord’s Egg Rock, the river systems make their way at last to the sea, and that salt water connects to all salt water quite directly, that her iridescence had means to follow. I did remember that in many a Sonata-Form movement a quiet and brief Andante section often precedes a massive and principal Allegro.
My parents are of Pennsylvania origin, but, again, I was born to Long Island. That left me a solitary, native, figurative orphan of Paumanauk. I knew that Queequeg of Ahab’s Pequod entered his first American whaling port in Long Island’s Sag Harbor. And I have often fancied that I am one of the descendants of the children outside of Jay Gatsby’s wake room in West Egg. Reports Nick Carraway with the appearance of Gatsby’s father: “I took him into the drawing-room, where his son lay, and left him there. Some little boys had come up on the steps and were looking into the hall; when I told them who had arrived, they went reluctantly away.” Fitzgerald’s Mr. Gatsby has long been high on my list of the great Transcendentalists, both fictional and actual, a careful list that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Captain Ahab, Henry David Thoreau, and perhaps, too, Master Yoda of Dagobah.
As a very young student of Gatsby’s Transcendentalism, I knew that the book carried, for someone like myself, a greater and more severe Venereal caution than any biological horror I was warned about in health class. For I was too hell-bent on my piano studies in youth to get into common trouble. I think of Horowitz’s remark: “I trust musicians more than anybody. They practice too much to do harm.” In my teens and twenties and early thirties I practiced too much to suffer common harm, but I practiced too much to prevent the accretion of a greater and later kind of mythic risk.
I knew from my Fitzgerald study that “Gatsby turned out all right in the end. . . .” But I had not yet studied the subtle nature of how that end was earned, or learned for myself what would make Mr. Gatsby, for me, the highest of American Transcendental Priests.
By the time of my 2003 trip to Concord, the fierce routines of my youthful practicing were behind me, and untested and ostensibly held virtues were about to have performance trials upon life’s platform. For I knew Mr. Gatsby’s ultimate Transcendentalism for myself as does a pianist who has mastered a piece only in the practice room. First performances often reveal a compromise of nearly fifty percent of control. I had had my romantic scrapes, but even as a thirty-three-year-old man I held a full and intact heart, and only a half-tested gospel in my head.
May 2003 yielded to June 2003, and I still thought of the young woman in Concord. I who loved Emerson so much, he who said, “Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places,” and loved so much what it was he said, lost my indifference to the place where he said it – I who come from a village of such beauty that if I were to lose indifference for a place it should only be my own. But I still thought of the chiseled fingertips pointing to the fire buckets, and in my walks by the Sound I fancied more and more that touching the water left traces of mermaid’s skin upon my hands, a subtle material like lost contact lenses from a thousand delicate dolls. When I had stood upon the shores of my native village, New England had always pressed down upon my imagination and my shoreline like a branding iron. I am surprised that its intensity has not steamed off the Sound. The north shore harbors are proof of the pattern of the iron, the mark of the brand. I live on the edge of Cow Harbor.
With all this in my mind, I went to my desk on a June night and looked up the address of Mr. Emerson’s house. Not since, perhaps, Walt Whitman had any native Long Islander written to that Cambridge Turnpike address with such hope and interest. In the letter I described the tour I recall above, and near its end I remarked: “One travels through life and has these little meetings, and they go by in silence and compound into little yet grand, poignant yet powerful regrets. Again, I hope you do not think this silly.” On the envelope I could only address the tour guide by description, for I had no name.
I mailed the letter on June 3. I heard nothing for more than a month, and I did not really expect to hear anything at all. On July 10, however, I had a reply by email. As I look now at the boxed records of our correspondence, from even just the month following that reply, I see the history of a romantic quickening without precedent in my life. The Andante preamble before a looming Sonata-Allegro form was subject to an accelerando as by the most welcome case of stage-nerves and excitement I have ever known.
I was fascinated by the caution of our telephone conversations when compared with the romantic character of our writing correspondence. I remember that Julie asked me with care when we first spoke if I had the intention of practically emulating a Thoreau, of hoping to test life at its fundamental level by living in a cabin. I replied with levity: no, that I had already known too much of the woodshed from all my years of practicing. But even in those calls there was an ardent quickening, and we suggested that our conversations recalled the earnestness of children with cups and strings in place of phones between neighboring windows.
Soon after our correspondence began, we agreed to meet in Boston, on August 5. At her suggestion, I made a reservation at one of Boston’s venerable old hotels, the Omni Parker House, and we made our appointment to unite in its lobby at 3:00 PM, after she rang my room to announce her arrival. Romance apes the satisfaction of creative activity; thus I cannot express the electric idleness I enjoyed while waiting for my journey.
I made my preparations as the Andante’s accelerando continued. At last I travelled by an early morning train from Penn Station, New York to Boston, along the same rail path of George Gershwin’s ride during which he conceived the plan for “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Wrote Gershwin: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang. . . . And there I suddenly heard, even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. . . . By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.”
When I myself reached Boston, I took a cab from South Station yet followed my own definite plot to the hotel on School Street. “Here on business?” I was asked during check-in, yet I do not recall my reply. I was sent to Room #1151, which even then had the numerical significance to me as that of a bar number in a score.
I was so in awe of the mounting importance of the occasion that I unpacked my suitcase and used the room’s chest of drawers. I had never thought to do that in a hotel before; nor had I ever seen anyone else ever do so. I took a walk in the nearby neighborhood, and I remember the cuckoo calls of the crossing signals. And I recall being afraid that I might see the subject of my appointment before the appointed time. I had lunch, and I returned to the room to prepare.
The small room then was as a greenroom before a recital. I showered, and I dressed with great care. I had new clothes for the meeting. I had put aside Thoreau’s advice: “If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.” I had a new polo shirt, as white as the top C on a piano in a showroom. But when I added my new black trousers, my torso looked like the base of the white-key D between the blackness of D-flat and E-flat.
This brings me to where I began this tale, to the first time I was before that room’s phone, waiting for it to ring. My heart beat as if I were running 200-meter repeats on a track, though I did no more than pace. And yet I wished to hold that moment, to live in the eve of event, to hold back the most anticipated of things.
3:00 PM came, and the phone on the little table next to the bed’s headboard rang: “Mr. Kohl, your party is here,” said a man’s voice from the front desk. I took a last pause and checked myself in the mirror, and then I went to the elevator. I had never found elevators of particular significance before in my life. Yet I must attempt to say how much occurred on that ride. Lobby buttons and descending elevator rides have now a remarkable suggestiveness to me.
I muttered a few hellos to fellow passengers as I made the descent, but permit me to share the truth. I must now steer away from applying mere mermaid clichés to the young woman who waited for me, for they are inadequate, and I should apply the focus of figurative language to the subject for whom I can confirm all facts: myself. I have said that I had made it to that point of life, my thirty-third year, with my heart completely intact. Thus I can say that I was then as the supposed Chicxulub Impactor of sixty-six million years ago, as the speculative asteroid that arrived to mark the end of the reign of non-avian dinosaurs – as the stone of fate that arrived to mark the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary in Earth’s history. I had been safe on earlier visits to Massachusetts before my last trip to Concord, for only an empty house was there; an orbit I could escape.
That elevator ride was as that Chicxulub Asteroid’s final descent. I shook with magic. I burned and sparked with friction as I fell deeper into the atmosphere of that lobby. I was affected by the once-in-a-lifetime resistant material of an atmosphere. But the volume of my heart as fatal asteroid was such that no atmosphere could burn it up before it could make its strike.
The elevator came to rest at L; the Chicxulub Impactor made its landing. The doors opened. I stepped into the busy lobby and its Yucatan waves of people, its lighting to me like that of a Merchant-Ivory Edwardian amber. We had joked days before that we would find each other in the darkest and most private corner of the lobby. There were no such spots. Nor did I need to look for one, for Julie was the first thing I saw as I stepped forward. On the opposite side of the lobby – on a settee parallel to the front entrance and to School Street, but perpendicular to the row of elevators – she sat below a painting of the hotel itself. Her face was already turned to mine.
Her hair was as brilliant as a Ginger Rogers publicity still, as blonde as the rich and grained and warped light in the bell of a French Horn under stage lights. There was a rectangular, rose quartz, Malaysia Jade pendant on her neck, and her crossed legs emerged from an olive green shirt dress and were tipped by black shoes, and on one visible tiny joint, there was a single glistening toe ring. It had been a very hot day, and her skin showed a sheen. But her skin showed more than this. Her makeup had sparkles, had glitter in it. The dying mermaid’s scales were shining now, reflecting the sparks of the Chicxulub impact. There was even sunburn in one spot of her tan – from the mermaid too long on the surface, as the mild burn as from the ash of impact, just to the right of her sternum. All the impact fire was wiping out the last of the mermaids – yielding a new species for Venus worship as yet untold.
She stood to meet me. I said her name with caution, almost uncertain if this could be the same young woman. She said mine, and then embraced me and then my palms, and placed a book in my hands: Literary Trail of Greater Boston. But then she kissed me. Unlike Jay Gatsby, however, with the kiss I did not “wed unutterable visions to her perishable breath,” but wedded she who ostensibly breathed, too, the Platonic visions and herself romped with the mind of God. The great abstractions could take shape from her, as if her kiss would be to taste bardic epigrams at their human source, the transfusion from her kiss far more ambitious than any resurrection she could grant to the wood of an ancient house. I had not put her on a pedestal; I had thought to stare up to one with her, to raise one with the help of her arms, limbs carved in living sexual beauty.
Yet with that kiss I sought to balance unpardonably a spherical mass as that of Jupiter’s unto a golf tee. Her makeup, with its glitter, impressed itself into my white shirt. And with my kiss, my asteroid’s landing, my incarnation, I wiped out the dinosaurs.
But though I have taken pains above to draw some critical distinctions between myself and Mr. Fitzgerald’s scenes, I was very much surprised, like Nick Carraway on his first night in Gatsby’s mansion – when he entered “a high Gothic library, paneled with carved English oak” – to find a chance bystander on hand; this bystander, too, defined for me by some hint of supernatural placement and role of judgment. In other words I also had a witness like Nick’s man in “owl-eyed” spectacles.
As my incarnating kiss concluded with a staccato click, a voice from one of the wing chairs, perpendicular to the critical settee, blurted out with humor: “Wish I could stay to see the end of this!” We three all laughed, yet I was certain the man meant something much more than a mildly prurient joke. I have never forgotten him.
The Andante preceding the formal Sonata-Allegro was over. I was in the thrall of a perceived form now, in the grip of an irresistible Sonata Exposition. From that August 5 through the morning of August 8, the evolving Mermaid, a new species of Woman, shared Boston with me.
On the night before my departure, I recall that we visited the hotel’s mezzanine. In the hallway there is a large mirror, said to have been in the hotel’s rooms in which Charles Dickens stayed during an 1867-1868 reading tour. We tried to photograph ourselves in the mirror. I have the photograph before me now. We are hidden behind a flare in the picture, covered perhaps by the orbs celebrated in ghost hunter photos? Or is the camera’s flash merely hiding our faces? I know for certain it is the latter, for it is the more supernaturally telling of the possible explanations.
And later, sitting atop the tightly made bed of Room #1151, tight like a drumhead – sitting atop tucked and curved legs, as if upon vestigial seductive flukes – the young woman invoked a parallel between our own new love and the romance of Emerson and his first wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson. I replied that I resisted the comparison because I did not wish to lose my love so soon. Ellen Tucker Emerson died of tuberculosis not long after their marriage. Emerson later had the courage to open her coffin and confront the metamorphosis of her remains. This gesture is thought to be so critical to Emerson’s development that the incident serves as the opening to Robert D. Richardson’s great biography of the master.
But we addressed our happy tears with the room’s box of tissue. With laughter she dubbed the box the Official Tissue of the High-Strung Transcendentalists. She inscribed a bicentennial Emerson exhibition book to me: “On the 200th anniversary of Emerson’s birth, starts the new journey together of Emersonian discoveries and Transcendental triumphs.”
Now permit me to take one up to the moment I faced the phone in Room #1151 a second time.
After a romance of thirteen years, conducted over distance and proximity, gift book inscriptions began to be written in pencil, and Julie began to pull away in earnest. I fought unremittingly, even fanatically, against this – for a year and at a distance, to the point it was self-defining. But, curiously, I could win neither success nor valediction from her. And somehow the strength given to the figurative fingers of mind by my piano study permitted me to endure an interminable cliffhanger.
I leave the story of the intervening years of our romance to her. I do not omit so much as I do not presume to guess; this is the story of an individual consciousness, at last. Should she share the story with you, I contend that everything she will tell you of me is true – but her reproaches would not be harsh enough and her praises would not be high enough.
“I am not a Transcendentalist,” Julie said. I had come to know this already. But that didn’t mean I did not love this woman for herself. Yet that also did not mean that she did not tire of a man who is a Transcendentalist. I was true through it all, despite our troubles, for I loved the actual woman, as much as my illusion. I fought so hard because I fought as for two things, for twice the lover’s usual stake. And thus, with an unanswered proposal in the air, and with the positive side of her ambivalence fueling my nature, I expressed one last suitor’s plan by telephone.
On the Sunday afternoon before Columbus Day, 2017 at 3:00 PM, would she ask for me at the front desk of the Omni Parker House in Boston once more? If she did not appear, I would cease my pursuit. She acknowledged these terms – set for a week away – told me she loved me, and we ended the conversation. I did not notice at the moment I made the plan that I set the appointment for 3:00 PM instead of the 4:00 PM appointment time I had made in 2003. I still think about that small detail.
So much of our romance had been defined by my phrase, “We are only just getting started,” that I prepared that week to march as if only to the repeat sign at the end of the Sonata-Form Exposition. On Monday, October 2, I met a friend from my elementary school days on the edge of the harbor of my native Long Island Village, and he warned me not to make the journey to Boston. But he said later that because he knew me well he also knew that I would go. A pianist’s practicing teaches a morality of form so intense that it insists one even endure the consequences of unearned error and pain. I was taught to observe the repeat signs in a sonata. A pianist does not listen to a piece; he studies it, thus even fourteen years can seem as a moment to him. And a pianist studies a holy literature but is never guaranteed a congregation by his conservatory; he must be ruthless and solitary to find a pulpit. So, yes, even after fourteen years, I was just getting started.
I took Gershwin’s train again, and I took a taxi once more to the Omni Parker House Hotel. I checked in at the front desk for Room #1151. That part of the plan, that I had reserved the same room, I had kept to myself. The woman at the front desk did not ask me if I was there on business. The room was not yet ready, so I bided my time at the nearest bookshop and bought a gift, a volume I thought in keeping with Julie’s profession.
I ate lunch at the same address as I had on my first day in 2003, but the restaurant itself had changed. I returned to the hotel, and the room was ready. It was with a rare sense of wonder that I beheld the interior of Room #1151 again. Everything that I experienced in the preceding fourteen years had occurred since I had been in that room. Some objects were different or had been moved about. But the bed was the same, and it still sported the two symbolic New England pineapple carvings on the top ends of the headboard. And looking toward the bed, next to its right side, on the side away from the window, still stood the night stand and the telephone.
I hung my clothes in the closet this time, and they dangled there like Mr. Emerson’s dressing gown in Concord. With some hours to spare, I went for a run, and I recall that my return route was blocked by a Columbus Day parade. I went back to Room #1151, and began my preparations for three o’clock. I showered and shaved and dressed with a greater sense of ritual than a groom in any culture. I chose to wear all black. Perhaps so that the sparkles would not show as clearly if they came a second time? I looked like a walking fallboard from a Steinway concert grand.
I prepared the room as three o’clock came closer still, as I came closer to the expected meeting with the Exposition’s repeat sign. I sat and consulted some of the very Journal pages I have used to write much of the above. More than once that day I felt an uncontrollable urge to cry, and more than once in the final stretch of preparation, I indulged myself. After 2:30 I tried to watch television for a bit. I took a momentary solace in Alec Guinness’ voice as Obi-Wan Kenobi during the climactic dogfight over the Death Star. At ten to the hour I stood up and began to pace. The small bouts of tears had taken the place of the nausea that precedes performance for some pianists, so I felt ready.
At 2:55 my cellphone rang (I had not even owned one in 2003), and I risked taking the New York City call. It was from my piano professor from my undergraduate years. That it was he – once a guide to me in the unseen shapes of musical form – who had called in these very last moments before the end of this mystic Sonata Exposition, was a seeming symbol not lost on me. I did not tell him where I was, but I hinted I had to observe a strict 3:00 o’clock appointment. We said a pleasant and innocuous goodbye after a few minutes of speaking. I remembered for a moment that I had studied Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 7 with him.
I resumed my pacing and then stopped and stared at the phone at 3:00 PM. Even the two parts of the receiver suggested to me the two vertical dots of a score’s repeat sign. I stood perfectly still at the fork of a great musical roadmap, ready for a lesson from the Cosmos to proceed by command to Da Capo.
I muttered to myself, “Do the right thing.” And I waited.
The phone did not ring. I waited until 3:30. The phone still did not ring. I thought of how I had recently heard a recording of Beethoven’s Op. 7 by Andor Foldes. He had not taken the exposition repeat; that had jolted me. I went down to the lobby, and I looked at the settee below the painting of the hotel. No one I knew was there, nor was my owl-eyed man. I waited there until nearly 5:00 PM. I felt the deeply disconcerting sense a pianist suffers as during the onset of a memory lapse. But this was not a memory lapse; the piece had lapsed. I was astonished at the new details I noticed in the lobby as I waited in a state of raw but formless sound and vision.
I knew then I was no longer in a Sonata-Form. I left the lobby and wandered about the foreign city. I went to the McDonald’s nearest the Old Corner Bookstore, the old location of Ticknor and Fields. As I ate, I noted to myself that the children repeatedly visiting the soda machine were of ethnicities that would have been as exotic to earlier Boston Brahmins as if those children had been baby Queequegs from Kokovoko. But these children with their Cokes and Sprites spoke clear and native Yankee.
I wandered back to the hotel’s lobby. I thought perhaps to see a familiar face, panting with lateness. Yet I saw no one, not even my owl-eyed man. It was Sunday night, and I looked into the dark windows of the hotel’s closed bar, The Last Hurrah.
Before returning to the room for the night, I visited the Dickens mirror again. In the glass I saw only the face I shave; I saw only what Luke Skywalker saw during Yoda’s test for him in the Dark Side cave on Dagobah: one’s own face.
In Room #1151 – the number hardly seeming like a bar number to me then – I passed one of the most peculiar nights of my life. I lay on the bed like a melancholy chump and thought of Emerson looking into the coffin of his wife, and passing that test, enduring metamorphosis by accepting the disintegration of material most dear. I fancied the room then as a coffin of the beloved, but the body was nowhere to be seen. The woman had slipped the net. The dead was living out of sight. What, then, was the exact nature of my own test?
When I woke at times into that formless night, I turned musical phrases in my mind, as one does when sitting at a piano at the end of a working day, too tired to practice, pivoting infinitely between the suggestive leaps of an aged Tin Pan Alley song, a song, say, like Irving Berlin’s “The Melody Lingers On” – or lingering repeatedly over the mawkish changes between a IV-chord melting into a disguised half-diminished seventh chord built over the second degree.
I rose early the next morning. But just as I finished with the shower, I was compelled to rush to the front of the room, for there was a knock. Yet it was only the bill which had been left under the door. I looked at it; the total looked high. However, after even the greatest debts are paid honestly, they never seem quite as expensive to me in retrospect.
I decided to abandon the gift book. Room #1151 now has a library of two volumes: a Gideon Bible, and a book about Early American Furniture. The elevator ride was gentle, and I left the hotel. My train was not for many hours, so I wandered about the city, dragging my little suitcase along on its wheels. I stopped before the front of Macy’s, for there one can see a small sign marking the site of Emerson’s birth. I looked into the store’s windows as I had looked into the Dickens mirror at the hotel. No Mr. Emerson manifested himself as a transparent blue figure like that of a Star Wars Force Ghost. But it was not hard for me to imagine that a Master Yoda might appear to speak in his place, for Mr. Emerson was said to have little faith in personal immortality.
“Why,” asked Master Yoda in his retrograde syntax, “walking in his house were you? And why, Master Waldo asks, no one alive living there now?”
I smiled as the Jedi Master’s vision vanished, yet he still offered no answer as to what had been the nature of my test on this journey. I made my way to Boston Common. As I entered its precincts it began to rain! But the rain began to settle a bit of the Chicxulub Impactor’s dust. Yet I like to think that the dust, the sparks, the glitter, had never been foul. The rain started to dispel, too, the remembered amber light of the Merchant-Ivory soundstage in favor of the soaked gray setting that often drenches a sad-sack in an ending that starts many a modern romantic comedy.
Even now, well into a new year, I have nightly dreams of fire buckets and an elusive figure who will not speak to me. When I wake, I always reproach my subconscious: “Tell me what I don’t already know.” But it is very rare that one can place the apostrophe after the S in the word Transcendentalists. So let me report what it was that I already started to think on that Columbus Day morning last autumn.
As I reached the crossing from the Common to the Public Garden, I did my best to match my mysterious test to a plot from one of my actual or fictional Transcendentalist hero stories. And I compared them all, at last, to one from the figure I must rank, still, at the very top: Mr. Jay Gatsby. For they all, all my heroes, had had their Daisies – even Master Yoda, I suspect (though Star Wars lore as yet gives no clue to the youth of the supreme Jedi).
Emerson’s Daisy (his first wife) died, was removed for him, and then he became the man one recognizes; Thoreau’s Daisy (his sweetheart, Ellen Sewall) rejected his proposal, and then he became the man one recognizes; Ahab’s Daisy (the whale) kills him, and he remains the incomplete Transcendentalist, a figure incapable of escaping his object of singular focus. But Gatsby, I argue, is able to let go of a Daisy himself, for he “turned out all right at the end” indeed:
No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about. . . .
This moment may sound harsh at first, but not when considered in the light of a Transcendental triumph. Gatsby is no ghost – the Daisy is a daisy again. The Daisy is a daisy is a rose. He is at last awake. He has reached the level called for by Thoreau in Walden, that one anticipate Nature herself. It is likely that the passage above was written in a room over a garage in Great Neck, on Long Island. Merry poor houses, asylums, cabins, cometh everywhere.
I reached the bridge that crosses the pond of the Swan Boats in the Public Garden. Perchance the test was that I should conclude that the woman in my story had given me the gift as that of Ellen Sewall to Thoreau? Perhaps. But I still felt there was a need to solve the greater test, to give form to the formlessness that presided after the Sonata-Form disintegrated.
The rain came down very hard at this point, and I ran to shelter under the awning of the nearest building next to the Public Garden. But as I stood there, wet and feeling foolish, thinking of concert pianists as no more than Franz Liszt cover bands, something made me think of a form I had dismissed from my first semester of undergraduate music history, dismissed because the ancient form rarely if ever served my instrument’s more glorious Romantic utterances. I refer to the Cancrizan, the Crab Canon.
The simplest way I might express the formal shape of a Crab Canon:
Both of the above lines are meant to represent two musical lines sounding together, moving parallel, and in the same direction, both moving forward in time, yet the top line recounts the information of the bottom line in reverse order.
As the dust of my singular Chicxulub Impact continued to settle, I realized I had been living in fear of the assertion that we are living in a Cosmos where things are continually moving farther and farther apart – that impacts will be increasingly rare and one day impossible. But we are living falsely in fear of an ever-expanding Universe. We are as the forward moving yet retrograde voice in the Crab Canon – reconciling opposites and thereby all circumstances, reckoning all things that bless or befall, accepting the inevitability of forward motion whilst at the same time hinting at the reconstruction of the point of origin. All outcomes are indifferent so long as there is consciousness. We live in Crab Canon complement to the Universe. The Cosmos expands at present in its presumed cycle; we contract and restore it by power of metaphor, linking the ostensibly unlike and distanced and separated, marching away yet toward our founding singularities forevermore. We ourselves become a greater gravity than that governing Creation.
Under the awning some iridescent pigeons had taken shelter. “Do not the birds sustain the dinosaur line even now?” I muttered. I was relieved my owl-eyed man was nowhere in sight. His second and final appearance in Fitzgerald is for Mr. Gatsby’s burial.
And then, perhaps because the boy Gershwin first fell in love with music on hearing the “Melody in F” of Anton Rubinstein from a player piano, I whispered a phrase of Rubinstein’s from his twilight: “I have lived, loved, and played.” Then I replied with some words of my own: “The greatest pieces are those which are not yet written.”
Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.2 in G sharp minor Op.19
Ravel – Miroirs
Mozart – Piano Sonata in C K279
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A D959
Monday 18th June 2018, Wigmore Hall. Peter Donohoe, piano
I can think of few better ways to celebrate a significant birthday than a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall: a beautiful venue with a warm atmosphere, an audience of friends and supporters, and a generous programme of music reflecting the breadth and range of Peter Donohoe’s talents and musical tastes, and celebrating a long and acclaimed international career.
Anyone who attended Peter’s Scriabin sonatas marathon at Milton Court last year (the complete piano sonatas performed in three concerts in a single day) will know that Peter has a real affinity for the diverse and mercurial qualities of Scriabin’s writing, so this early piano sonata proved a good opener, reconfirming Peter’s ability to create multi-hued, highly expressive music and capture Scriabin’s fleeting, often volatile moods. And its rather fantasy-like qualities set the scene well for Ravel’s Miroirs, which for me was the real tour de force of this concert. Here was piano playing of the highest order – exquisite layers of sound, moments of aching beauty, and a clear vision for each movement to shape their individual characters and narratives. Oiseaux Tristes was heat-soaked and languid, its ennui washed away by the sparkling, rolling waves of Une barque sur l’océan – for me the highlights of this set. In both the Scriabin and Ravel, Peter displayed a wonderfully natural insouciance, presumably born of a long association with this music, which brought spontaneity to the performance.
The second half was occupied with the classical sonata form, in the hands of two masters – Mozart and Schubert. While the Mozart was elegant and intimate, as if played at home amongst friends, Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata was pacy and expansive. Here Schubert experimented with the possibilities of the classical sonata form, creating, with its companions the D958 and D960, a triptych of sonatas of “heavenly length” and wide-ranging musical ideas. The first movement of the D959 had grandeur and scale, emphasised by the exposition repeat, which Peter observed, and tempered by moments of introspection and wistfulness, though never melancholy. Its infamous slow movement was a reflective meditation shot through with a barely-controlled frenzy, rather than a funereal dirge with hysteria (the preferred approach of some pianists who shall remain nameless and who insist on reading the marking Andantino as Adagio….). Schubert’s shifts of gear, bittersweet harmonies and moments of wistfulness were neatly captured throughout. The finale was warm and consoling, nostalgic and ultimately hopeful. One can only wonder what else Schubert might have done with the sonata form had he lived longer…..
For an encore, Peter played Mozart’s D minor fantasy, beloved of pianists everywhere and a neat contrast to the quasi-fantasy of the Scriabin which opened this magnanimous concert.
Who or what inspired you to take up the ‘cello and pursue a career in music?
When my father gave me the possibility to try a cello, everything went naturally its own way. There has never been a moment of decision-making.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
All my teachers, mostly Eberhard Feltz; Nikolaus Harnoncourt and many musicians I’ve played with, including Janine Jansen, Gidon Kremer, the Quatuor Ébène and Alexander Lonquich to name a few.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The next concert.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
That way of thinking prevents you from making music.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
There are a lot of pieces that speak to you at different times. It is not always easy to judge the amount of time you need to bring them to life. Being aware of that amount, you choose the music that you want to spend your life with and grow.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Musikverein in Vienna, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Philharmonie in Warsaw. They have a special spirit, they support and inspire you to give your best.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I very much admire Alexander Lonquich for his integrity, the Quatuor Ebène for the diversity and devotion in their work, Janine Jansen for her utmost urgency. Playing with them feels like the best thing you can do.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Schubert Quintet with the Quatuor Ebene, Goldberg Variations and Brahms c-minor piano Quartet with Janine Jansen come to my mind. Listening to rehearsals with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Integrity and curiosity. Accepting failures as an inspiration to grow. Sharing something that unites everyone.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The concert experiences mentioned above.
What is your most treasured possession?
Renowned worldwide for his musical integrity and effortless virtuosity German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt is one of the most sought after and versatile artists today. As a soloist and conductor he enthralls audiences with repertoire spanning from the baroque to the contemporary.
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(photo: Marco Borggreve)