wet earth

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.

"The Guys" at MPC Studio Theatre

Two chairs on a sparsely decorated stage, two cups of coffee.  Two voices, a woman, a man.

Two planes.  Two towers.

Nothing about the tragedy of 9/11—the collapse of the towers, the number killed, the wars it spawned, the way it changed how we live—none of it was small.  For many, the reality of what occurred was too big to take in.  How to talk about it?  How to tell a story about it?

A dozen years on, artists are still struggling with how to convey what happened that day.

In Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” currently showing at the MPC Studio Theatre in a poignant production directed by Laura Coté, a New York firefighter asks a local writer to help him compose funeral remarks about the men of his company who went into one of the towers and never came out.  The small size of the Studio Theatre and the intimate storytelling quality of Nelson’s work create a space—theatrical, and also emotional—for the viewer to revisit, on a human scale, those terrible days, to experience the grief of 9/11 without feeling overwhelmed by it.

Nick (Gary Bolen) is proud of his men and their mission to save lives.  The onslaught of so much death on 9/11, the maddening senselessness of it, has nearly undone him.  Bolen gives a moving performance as a man shaken by grief, yet quietly stoic and committed to doing right by his men and their memory.

Joan (Jennifer L. Newman) is a journalist whose younger adventurous self—dangerous experiences in Central America, ideological passion—has given way to a more comfortable lifestyle.  When she is contacted by Nick for her help, she is astonished: Someone actually needs a writer?

Newman gives a strong, committed performance as a woman desperate to be of service during a time when so many felt useless and unsure how to help.  “I have nothing to bring to the table!” she exclaims, struck by the enormity of the pain around her and her own powerlessness to do anything about it.

Both Nick and Joan suffer from survivor’s guilt; with a slight change in scheduling, Nick could easily have been one of the dead men he now mourns.  But he isn’t.

Joan draws out from Nick the stories of the men, scribbles sentences on a yellow legal pad, then gives it to Nick to read aloud.  Nelson’s portrayal of the collaborative creative process is convincing: as any writer knows, the heart of a story lies in its details, and it is enjoyable to watch Joan coax Nick into remembering specific qualities and episodes from the lives of “the guys.”

Less successful in “The Guys” is the absence of any real tension between Nick and Joan.  Both are anxious to be kind to each other, even as each suffers his or her own private torments.  But for theatre—for any story—to work there must be conflict, which it is the story’s job to resolve.  Here all the conflicts feel off-stage, or in the characters’ minds.  Bolen and Newman fully and skillfully invest Nick and Joan with deep humanity, giving voice to and embodying the heightened emotion of that time.  But without any spark of conflict in the script, the play is ultimately less than satisfying.

This is not entirely surprising; “The Guys” was written and performed in New York (by Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver) mere weeks after September 11, 2001.  Its purpose was to address the immediate trauma of 9/11, to tell a story about—and for—those who had experienced it.  “The Guys” is about connection, about finding solace and common ground with people who are different, and about the ways tragedy can erase those differences, at least for a time.  Seen in that light, it is a more than a memorial play.  It is also a reminder of how, in those frightening days, people opened up to the idea that what we need, more than anything, is each other.

"The Guys," at MPC's Studio Theatre, through Sunday, September 15.

"I'm Not Rappaport" at the Magic Circle

“The best thing for relaxing is jokes,” one man says to another in Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre in a delightful production directed by Elsa Con.  What the jokester doesn’t say is that sometimes behind our laughter a hidden tear gleams, waiting to be acknowledged.  Gardner’s Tony Award-winning classic is one of the most potent and entertaining explorations of this dynamic—the underground brotherhood of humor and sadness—that I have seen in a long time.

The funny man in question, Nat Moyer (Rollie Dick, left, photo above), is a feisty elder still waging now-ancient battles for freedom and justice in a world that seems to have moved on.  Nat is a force of nature with a cane, a passionate and opinionated man raised in the heady atmosphere of early 20th-century labor struggles and socialist idealism.  Now in his eighties, he sees how society is changing but refuses to give up the struggle without a fight.

We meet him on a park bench in Central Park, New York, pestering Midge Carter (Avondina Wills), an aging building superintendent struggling with vision problems.  Midge would rather be left alone with his newspaper, yet he can’t seem to resist being drawn into Nat’s labyrinthine storytelling.

Many of these stories center on Nat’s identity.  First he claims to be a secret government agent; when Midge presses for details, Nat explains that “in my particular field, I don’t have to have a cover story.”

Yet deep cover is exactly what Nat’s self-dramatizing yarns provide, masking the fear of growing old, helpless and powerless.

The arrival of Pete Danforth (Flip Baldwin), a representative of the building where Midge works and lives, provides Nat the opportunity to spring into action.  Danforth has come to inform Midge he’s being let go; a tenant has seen him walking into walls.  Midge has been hiding his growing eyesight troubles as long as he can.  Now he just wants to make it to Christmas, for the holiday tips and bonuses.

Midge manages to convince Danforth to increase the amount of his severance pay, but Nat has no patience for collaboration with the enemy.  Instead, he impersonates a lawyer and frightens Danforth with the threat of litigation, union action, public embarrassment, and, one of Nat’s most cherished words, a strike.

Emboldened by this apparent success, Nat takes on other increasingly dangerous projects: a park hoodlum (Daniel Ruacho), a dope dealer (Brandon Burns) who terrorizes a young woman (Amanda Schemmel), and, most terrifying of all, his own daughter, Clara Gelber (Kalyn Shubnell), who wants to get her father off the streets, out of harm’s way, and into some kind of supervised living.

As Nat, Rollie Dick is simply magnificent.  This is a performance not to be missed.  In Nat, Gardner has created a character who can see what lies ahead, the looming, inescapable precipice of death, and whose response is to throw himself full throttle into the business of life.  Dick takes on this challenging character with incredible gusto.  “The proper response to outrages is still to be outraged!” he cries.  And the diminishment of old age is definitely an outrage to a man so intent that life—his life—should have meaning.

The chemistry between Dick and Wills is superb.  Throughout the play, Midge tries to separate himself from Nat and what he sees as the old man’s craziness.  Midge just wants to be left alone, to find some comfort in the dwindling existence that remains for him.  He has no time for Nat’s grandiosity.  “We’re old men,” he tells Nat.  “We wander like ghosts.”

Yet perhaps they are not so dissimilar; in the end, both men have a fierce desire to be seen.  Wills captures with grace and style the depth of Midge’s character, his accommodation with injustice, his own quiet longing for recognition.

The beautiful set design, by Dani Maupin—with the park’s trees sending forth one final bright flourish of fall color—adds to the note of poignancy that gathers as the play moves towards its satisfying conclusion.

It is easy to be sentimental about old age, but I’m Not Rappaport offers instead a truer portrait of life’s last chapter.  An aging parent, as willful, stubborn and narcissistic as a toddler, can be a problem with no easy solution.  But it can also be an opportunity to appreciate the full spectrum of life, in all its messiness and complications.  “The very old, they are miracles like the just born,” Nat says, almost in self-defense, as if living past a certain age were a crime.  “Close to the end is precious, like close to the beginning.”

I’m Not Rappaport, at the Magic Circle Theatre, 8 El Caminito Rd, Carmel Valley, through September 15.  For tickets and information, call 831-659-7500.