Listen To Article
You may have noticed that since Brene` Brown (The Gifts Of Imperfection) and others, the idea of perfection has taken a bit of a beating, especially among a therapeutically attuned younger generation wary of “tiger moms” and even, shall we add, of genially directive grandparents. The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days goes the title of a recent devotional book by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie.
Yes, indeed, imperfect days are the only days we have. Still, there are those moments when the pursuit of excellence can be a particularly enthralling thing to observe.
One of the gifts of Western Michigan, if you are a piano enthusiast, is the Gilmore Piano Festival, held mainly in Kalamazoo for nearly three weeks every other spring, but with other Gilmore concerts and events occurring in the off-years. The Gilmore not only draws for performance many of the greatest pianists in the world, but also nurtures global young talent and offers a prestigious prize of $300,000 every four years to a particularly promising early-career pianist. The winner is then featured at the upcoming festival.
What distinguishes this competition from celebrated competitions like the Cliburn and the Chopin is that its winners are selected not in a pressurized onsite juried contest, but from recordings and anonymous observation around the world over a period of time. A number of winners, including Leif Ove Andsnes, Piotr Anderszewski, Ingrid Fliter, Kirill Gerstein, and Igor Levit, have had major performing careers and demonstrate their loyalty to the Gilmore by returning in recital. Along with its major prize, the Gilmore also presents every two years a Gilmore Young Artist Award to pianists in a promising new generation of U.S.-based talent, again anonymously nominated and selected over time.
No doubt, the Young Artist winner (2006) who has gone on to the most dazzling superstardom—think Rolex watches—is the pyrotechnically and musically gifted Yuja Wang, who helped the Gilmore select its newest Steinway and then played it at the Gilmore Festival of 2022.
At the end of May, in keeping with its nurturing, collegial atmosphere—most of the visiting Festival pianists stay on after their concert to offer a morning masterclass, and some stay even for the evening performance by the following recitalist—the Gilmore brought to town the renowned and revered Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires and her ongoing Partitura Project. The fulfillment, said Gilmore Director Pierre van der Westhuizen, of a personal dream.
Along with her own superlative concert and recording career, Ms. Pires has long had a passion for cultivating young talent, indeed in nurturing an egalitarian love for music and the other arts among the young generally. In 1999, on a beautiful, remote farm in Portugal, she initiated the Belgais Centre for the Study of the Arts, offering extended workshops where invited young musicians live together and work together with established artists, principally Pires herself, learning from them and, importantly, also from each other.
And in 2012 she began in Belgium two complementary “Partitura” projects, the Partitura Choirs, which creates and develops choirs for disadvantaged children, and the Partitura Workshops, which, in the words of the Gilmore brochure, “aim to encourage cooperation and social engagement among pianists and balance the dynamic among artists toward collaboration rather than competitiveness. The Partitura model encourages collective work sessions as an alternative to traditional master classes.”
The May Gilmore event, the first Partitura to be held in the U.S., brought Ms. Pires together with six highly gifted young pianists who came from various countries but have studied in the United States and Canada at such top-flight schools as Oberlin, Peabody, Julliard, Indiana University, and the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. A few days into their time together, working together and also living together, they appeared in a wonderful joint Sunday afternoon recital, playing solo, with each other, and with Ms. Pires—four hands, six hands, and in the end, pushing the limits of how many bodies can crowd one keyboard, a rousing eight hands! On her own, Ms. Pires performed the Beethoven “Pathetique” Sonata (Op. 13) and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
The daily workshops were open to auditors, and on the day I came, there were only a few of us, along with Ms. Pires and the six students. All of us, at her invitation, gathered closely in a semi-circle around the two pianos. The work for that day was Beethoven’s visionary final sonata (Op. 111). It is in only two movements, the first rugged and turbulent, the mountainous ascent coming to rest quietly on what one feels to be a summit plateau. The second resumes the journey from there with a sublime Arietta, issuing in a set of variations reaching up finally, through sets of trills, into the silence of the stars. It is one of the greatest and musically most demanding works in all of piano literature. Ms. Pires was to perform it herself in Chicago’s Symphony Hall that weekend.
With students and auditors seated and expectant, the work began, the first student, after a fortifying gulp from his water bottle, playing the entire first movement. Ms. Pires occasionally looked down at her score. At the end, a smiling compliment. Then, something along these lines: We need to remember, don’t we, that for all the drama of this movement, Beethoven remained a classicist in deep ways. This means that in all the turbulence of the movement the left hand needs to remain very structured and articulated along with the right. Yes, chimed in another student, who had earlier had a master class with pianist Murray Perahia, Murray was always saying to me that I should quit making my Beethoven sound like Chopin! We may each, continued Ms. Pires, have our own interpretation, but we must all be faithful to the character, the essence, of the music. This is an ethical obligation. Did she really mean ethical? Yes, she insisted. Ethical.
Another attempt by the performing student, still not quite getting there. Ms. Pires went to the piano to demonstrate. Finally, to isolate the problem, she played the right hand while he played only the left. Success! “You played the left hand better when I played the right.” He played again, this time with both hands. Progress!
And so the absorbing morning went, another student also playing through the entire first movement, after which comments and suggestions from Ms. Peres and from the other students. And all along attempts at improvement—and attempts yet again, sometimes other students going up to the keyboard or to the adjoining piano to further the cause.
If you play from the whole body and not just from the upper body, said Ms. Pires, recognizing the strenuous physical demands of the movement, your sound will have the needed energy and weight without violence. Ms. Pires believes in deep mind-body connections, and she demonstrated. Further: If you really understand the language of the movement, the changes in dynamics will come very naturally—organically. The student tried the subtle dynamic transition again.
Then a short break, and the process was repeated for the Arietta and variations. To ensure the connection between the two movements, Ms. Pires had the students play the final bars of the first to usher in the hushed beginning of the second. Think of the movement as reaching for God, said Ms. Pires. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God. Or maybe God reaching to us, a student interjected.
The lunchtime break came, and I left the workshop, elevated in spirit by what, for four hours, I had been welcomed into. Here had been six high-level students, from very diverse international and cultural backgrounds, working together with a great artist and mentor who herself was so obviously still in quest of high musical ideals. No competition in the room, only joyously shared commitment. But no slackening of standards either. That was messy, Ms. Pires pronounced firmly after a particularly tumultuous passage. Superlatives were in abeyance, the words “fantastic” and “awesome” not once to be heard. One word did come up importantly at the end.
How, in one word, asked Ms. Pires, would the students describe the two performances they had just heard of the second movement, which, she noted, were quite similar? “Respectful,” one student replied. The others agreed.
Driving home, I remembered a story about Artur Schnabel, the great pianist whose Beethoven performances many years ago, but never since out of recorded circulation, set a high musical standard for generations of pianists to come. After a performance at Hunter College in New York on January 20th, 1951, recalled his son, “he said to me—and his eyes were beaming: ‘For the first time I succeeded today in playing that last line of Beethoven’s opus 90 so that I found it convincing.’” It was, his son added, “the last concert of his life.”