Piano Geniuses

If you are a pianist, what does it mean to be a genius?  Is it the specific sounds you produce—the timbre, the tone, the color?  Is it the way your fingers move on the keys—your dexterity and clarity, your technical skills?  Is it some aspect of your musical life that occurs when you are away from the piano—your public role as an advocate for creativity, for innovation, or your writing, speaking, arranging, improvising, composing?  What are the qualities that help us point to you and say, yes, this one is a genius?

I was thrilled last week when I learned that the MacArthur Foundation awarded two of its coveted 2013 “genius” grants to two pianists, Jeremy Denk and Vijay Iyer (photo below right).  I have heard the jazz musician Iyer perform three times, in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco, and each time I have been dazzled by his searching imagination and fierce intelligence, by a musical energy that always feels propulsive, expansive, on the move.  Listening to his compositions and improvisations, for me, is to experience the dynamic unfolding of a brilliant mind at play, translated into music, into sound, and therefore into the senses.

But what about classical music?  Growing up studying piano, I was quite aware of the immense divide between right and wrong notes: there was no middle ground.  There was also a perceived separation between “expression” (playing with feeling) and “technique” (getting the notes right).  I usually received more praise for the former; only as an adult have I finally learned how to practice.

When I learned that Denk (photo below left) had won this award, I felt a sense of victory against the belief that classical musicians “only” play the notes that someone else wrote, and are therefore somehow less “creative” than musicians who improvise.  In addition to being a pianist, Denk is also a prolific writer about music and the creative process.  On the MacArthur website, Denk is praised for exploring “the connection between the process of writing and the practicing musician’s ceaseless efforts to find the most vivid and meaningful way to bring a particular phrase to life.”  That rings so true, that common resonance between playing a sequence of notes over and over, and rewriting a sentence again and again, as each time the artist keeps reaching and striving for clarity of expression, for balance, for beauty.

But what about the brilliant pianist who doesn’t write about the piano, whose only communication with his public is through music, through the meeting of his body and mind with the instrument on the stage?  Can he, too, be a genius?  A friend of mine recently described the pianist Vadym Kholodenko (photo at top), this year’s winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as a genius.  Kholodenko will perform next Sunday, in Carmel, and I eagerly look forward to his recital.  His choice of repertoire for this performance, an all-Rachmaninoff program, has limited appeal to me, but I will keep my mind open.  (The MacArthur also praised Denk for his “unexpected pairings of pieces in recital programs and recordings,” pairings in which “he often draws out surprising themes and continuities between historically and stylistically disparate works.”)

My friend, who heard Kholodenko perform live last summer at the Van Cliburn, in Fort Worth, Texas, said that, for him, what raised his musicality to the level of genius was that no matter what technical challenge the most difficult pieces in the repertoire might pose, Kholodenko responded with an ease and flowing grace that seemed to be above and beyond the realm of technique.  Kholdenko also famously composed a thrilling cadenza to a Mozart concerto on the plane en route to Fort Worth, which led San Francisco Classical Voice to suggest that he possesses “the guts of a true superartist.”

My take on these three musicians is that genius is not what the listener thinks about the pianist, it is how the listener feels.  It is an internal experience, not a judgment: one imagination making contact with another.  How many concerts have I attended where I was impressed, but not moved?  With a genius, we are moved.  This can happen far from the concert hall.  About a year ago, I did something I hadn’t done in a very long time.  I put a CD on the stereo, lay on the bed, and did not get up until the entire CD had finished.  While the music played, its enchanting rhythms streaming around me, I felt the powerful light and heat of the afternoon sun pouring onto the bed and onto me, and it was as if the music and the sunlight were together conspiring to help me dissolve into pure awareness, no past, no future, just that extended moment of sound, and light, and warmth, and my own body, and everything was exactly as it needed to be in that moment.  A moment of absolute perfection, and I at the center of it, warm, grateful, and awake.

The CD was Vijay Iyer’s “Tirtha.”

For tickets and information about Vadym Kholdenko, Sunday, October 6, 3:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel, contact the Carmel Music Society.