Pianists Behaving Badly

‘From the outset all manner of unacceptable behaviour, whether manifesting itself emotionally in false rapture or facial grimace, the stamping of feet to mark the rhythm, accompanied by an all-embracing unsightly body movement, the shaking and nodding of the head to and fro, snorting during a trill or difficult passage, all of these and more cannot under any circumstances be condoned or excused, regardless of rank or gender. Neither can politeness nor indulgence toward the fairer sex be permitted even a mere consideration. Despite music being perceived solely through the ears, there can be no excuse to offend the eyes with such wild antics being carried on in public. Those musicians who enrapture through their performance perceptibly tend to weaken an otherwise good impression when their caricature-like behaviour either induces laughter in us or their apparent convulsions tend to instil fear and horror amongst the listeners’. (Daniel Gottlieb Turk, translated from the German).

Until very recently, junior doctors were not taught “bedside manner” at med school; likewise, are aspiring concert soloists taught concert etiquette while at conservatoire or music college? The thought certainly conjures up an amusing image of a roomful of would-be virtuosi being taught how to bow and curtsey properly…. In the regulations for the Diploma exams, one of the requirements is “a high degree of stagecraft”. I know I can cope with the fashion element: as a friend said when we were discussing what I might wear for my diploma recital, “One thing’s for sure, Fran: you’ll be the best-dressed candidate by a long way!”. But bowing, or, worse, a neatly executed curtsey? Not a quick bob-down, but a proper, graceful, deep curtsey? Hmmmm…..

Just as the first piece of a concert is the soloist’s “calling card”, the way the soloist presents him or herself on the concert platform can also set the mood for the rest of the evening. There are many different ways of doing it: continental, especially southern Mediterranean and Easter European performers, seem to favour a deep bow and hand on heart, perhaps expressing the inexpressible even before the music has begun? Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja strides purposefully onto the stage, her bow is a little impatient, as if she is keen to get on with the evening’s work. Paul Lewis, with his Byronic dark curls and stormy brows, always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but the concert hall; I used to think this was a sign of his general grumpiness, but lately I’ve concluded he may just be shy. Angela Hewitt, on the other hand, has a smile as sparkling as the crystals on her gown and exudes general pleasure at being there.

Some of the greatest artists of our time, indeed, of all time, are or were famously miserable: Sviatoslav Richter shared Paul Lewis’s grumpy face, as did Rachmaninov (there is even a photo of him in the green room at the Wigmore Hall looking as if the last thing he wanted to do was play the piano), while Grigory Sokolov has a reputation for dismissing his audience with a curt nod, as if the audience are an irritation to be borne for the duration of the performance. Why do artists find it so difficult to acknowledge the audience who, after all, are a critical component of the concert experience? For without an audience, it would not be a concert…. If one’s body language on greeting the audience is negative, then no matter how beautifully and movingly, and technically flawlessly one plays, the audience will always feel rather hard done by, perhaps even questioning why they paid good money for such a misery-guts to entertain them. Incidentally, at the end of a concert, Paul Lewis cannot wait to get off the stage. He takes the most peremptory of curtain calls, and scuttles away to the green room as soon as possible. Or maybe he is just anxious to get out of the Wigmore Hall before the pubs close?

Then there is the outfit: these days, many male soloists are eschewing the traditional virtuoso uniform of white tie and tails in favour of lounge suits, nehru jackets, smocks, and even grubby tee-shirts. Given that the physical effort of playing the Rach 3 is equivalent to shovelling coal, I suspect many a concerto soloist would happily play in a vest. Some soloists have developed a very studied and careful on-stage image through their attire: Stephen Hough favours shiny metallic green shoes; Lang Lang has his wide-sleeved Chinese jackets; Mitsuko Uchida’s Issey Miyake pleated creations (which, when she moves her arms, gives the impression of butterfly wings). “Russell Brand of the piano” James Rhodes, with his Joe-90 glasses, 4-day stubble and tattoos, has gone to the other extreme, by choosing to appear in scruffy tee-shirt, frayed jeans and dirty Converse trainers, rather like the traditional music student.

Interestingly, the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses and long gowns. The last time I heard Angela Hewitt, my eyes were dazzled by the rhinestones on her satin dress. All rather lovely – and the music was pretty good too. At one of the ‘Maria Joao Pires and Friends’ concerts at the Wigmore in 2007, my seat was located to one side of the stage, so I could only see the musicians’ feet. MJP wore a rather striking tunic and flowing skirt. And on her feet? Big, clumpy sensible shoes.

It’s not just the outfits that can delight or offend the eyes: it’s the gestures too. I have never favoured extravagantly, virtuoso affectations: they just get in the way of the music. Obviously, certain music demands certain gestures: I did a lot of work last winter with my teacher learning how to float my hands and arms about the keyboard while playing Debussy’s ‘Voiles’. One’s body language can certainly inform the music and help to convey mood and meaning to the audience. But when the gestures are simply for effect, to draw attention to soloist rather than to music, they become irritating. The Turkish pianist Fazil Say is a specialist in extravagant movements, and to say he is “all over the piano” is an understatement: he sways and swoons, tosses his greasy locks around, raises his eyes to heaven, or brings his nose almost to the ivories. None of this makes any sense when he is playing a Bach Toccata or the elegant slow movement of a Mozart Piano Sonata (which, incidentally, he ruined).

Snuffling and grunting, sighing and humming are other virtuoso habits. I wonder how many piansts are actually aware that they are doing it? I accept that some habits are probably the result of nerves; others are just that – habits, which have become ingrained. A friend of mine sighs as he plays; Glenn Gould famously muttered; Paul Lewis grunts, so much so that the first time I heard him play, I thought there was a problem with the piano! It reached a climax of growling as he approached the hauntingly beautiful Arioso of Beethoven’s Opus 110; curiously, he did not snuffle once during the sublime and ethereal second movement of the Opus 111.

So, can I please make an appeal to all soloists? Smile as you walk across the stage and bow in such a way as to dispel remoteness: it will bring the audience closer, draw them in, and remind them that this is to be a shared experience. Oh, and wear a clean shirt, and maybe a nice pair of shoes?

2 thoughts on “Pianists Behaving Badly”

  1. I would guess that it is shyness on Paul Lewis’ part rather than grumpiness. When he visits Chicago, he is actually quite gracious in attending the post-concert receptions and gives engaging answers to our not-so-profound questions. Speaking of Brendel’s pupils, I have seen Imogen Cooper in tears when taking her final bows. It was certainly not because she had performed badly – quite the contrary – so I presume it was an emotional release after giving her all in the performance.

  2. I agree!

    Training in stage deportment would be eye-opening for many musicians.

    In a singers’ class about how to do better auditions, very often someone would enter well, make her announcement, and then self-consciously stare at the floor. So any self-confidence displayed upon entry disappeared immediately.

    When the singers realized what others saw, they looked much better and began winning auditions.

    I think that musicians spend so much time in the practice room, the ability to relate to people is compromised. It shows even more on stage.

    Gretchen

Comments are closed.