Thursday, May 21, 2009

In Search of Sound II

More often than not, Vladimir Horowitz was appreciated for the wrong reasons. Yes, in the 20s and 30s, no one had a technique like him. But later we had people like Pollini, a veritable computer taken human form. I juxtapose these two names for a reason: Horowitz's technique included SOUND, which he never for a moment allowed to be absent from his playing. Pollini is simply a Godowskian mechanism (and without the tone or lyricism of Godowsky's era).

This is what I felt has always been underappreciated. When at the triumphant Moscow return in 1986, someone commented, "Horowitz is the only pianist who plays with colors," there, finally, you had a listener who understood what Vladimir Horowitz was accomplishing.

A scale can be scale, or it can be a fire cracker. An arpeggio can be an arpeggio, or it can be ocean waves. Octaves can be octaves, or they can be a cannonade. Horowitz's sensitivity to sound has probably never been equalled, not by Liszt or Anton Rubinstein, not even by Chopin or Debussy themselves. In fact, I want to say that Horowitz never played notes -- he made sounds. (Very musical ones, naturally. For Horowitz really was one of the great musicians, even if his musicality was sometimes sui generis.)

There was talk that "The Horowitz Piano" was somehow "rigged." For starters, there were at least four "Horowitz pianos" over the years. Secondly, it has been well-documented, by those who have played his piano after his death, that it was harder to play, not easier. The weight that would produce a mezzopiano on a regular Steinway thundered a fortissimo on Horowitz's. So to play all the gradations of p, pp, and ppp, you needed a transcendental digital sensitivity. Only Horowitz possessed it.

Somehow I realized that the technique-through-sound approach worked for me on the piano before realizing that it could work for organ, as well.

Last June -- six months before Jon Gillock's life-changing advice described in the previous post -- I was to play Chopin's Piano Trio in G minor with the Lavazza Chamber Ensemble. The strings have little to do, while the piano part is like Chopin's Third Concerto. I wasn't sure how to approach it, especially since I just did not have a lot of time in my schedule. I tried budgeting my practice time, practicing only the parts I didn't know. I practiced "just the notes," in other words.

And let me state: you do really need to practice notes! Not that I like to admit it. But there is no substitute for technical woodshedding, when necessary. And there are healthy and unhealthy ways to do it. The unhealthy ones can ruin both hands and psyche.

So I did the woodshedding, but it just wasn't coming together. As late as the dress rehearsal, I simply could not play the piece coherently or cohesively.

Meanwhile, in an earlier rehearsal, I was enjoying the music and less worried about the concert deadline. Kristina Nilsson, the violinist of the trio, remarked, "It's amazing that an organist can play the piano as well as you do." I said simply, "I just try to make the sound that I want to make." You know, the whole "water instead of arpeggios" thing described earlier. But more than that: when a pianist plays cleanly, doesn't it SOUND a certain way? And I think every pianist in the world thinks that only by playing every note with computer accuracy produces that clarity. It's simply false -- the proof being that Horowitz sometimes made mistakes. So to be honest, I tried to make the sound of a clean pianist. I simply approached it from the opposite side. A sparkling arpeggio sounds a certain way -- I tried to make that sound.

But as it got closer to the concert, I got more and more nervous about the notes. Then there was the problematic dress rehearsal at which I (and undoubtedly the others!) wondered what was to become of me. Because on top of it all: I had tendonitis.

Now ... before you start interpreting that word I just uttered ... a doctor will tell you that the term "tendonitis" can mean anything or nothing. It is like the terms "illness," or "treatment." They are undefined and undefinable.

So before rumors circulate that "Ciampa has tendonitis," I assure you that tense tendons come and go and can be as curable as the reduction of caffeine intake. (The notion of tendonitis being "permanent" was yet another misconception injected into me from my piano teacher of yore. Perhaps what she really was saying is: "If you get tendonitis, that's the point at which I give up on you and concentrate on the next competition-winner.")

I had a couple of days left before this concert. I asked my dear friend Anne Conner, "What am I going to do? I have to practice, but my tendons hurt." She said, "You know the piece. And even if you don't, nothing you do now is going to help you at this point." She was right. She continued, "Just run through the piece once, or twice if you feel up to it."

I played very little in those couple of days, and I was sure to practice from the standpoint of sound and to forget technique entirely.
I sat there at the piano, the downbeat came, and ... I knew the piece! No one could believe it (least of all the long-suffering string players!). It wasn't a note-perfect performance. But I realized that I really had practiced. All of that woodshedding really did happen, and the notes were there, in hands and brain. All I needed to do was to make music and, well, to sound good. It was one of those personal triumphs that make a career feel fulfilling.

Why it took me so long to realize that I could approach the organ the same way, I cannot say. I guess I'm a little slow that way. But I must leave you with a Horowitz anecdote which was told to me personally by Franz Mohr, his piano technician. Franz arrived at the Horowitz's 94th street mansion. Franz entered. Horowitz was playing. Franz said, "I see you're practicing." In feigned indignation, Horowitz declared, "Franz! I never practice! I REHEARSE."

And if you rehearse the sound as carefully as you want to rehearse the notes ... well ...