Some Thoughts on Chopin and his Attendant Project
I love Chopin. I think he was One of the Greats. It seems a too-obvious thing to say, he’s clearly one of The Great Composers. Nobody made the piano sound as much as he did, before or (arguably) since. And what’s more, he’s one of the rare composers that knew his limitations—never venturing further from his instrument, despite what must have been enormous pressure from whatever the “establishment” of his day (read: the whole Music of the Future set) must have pressured him to do. He retreated, he dealt, he had some kind of affair (or did not) and he wrote his “sugar dusted” salon piano pieces which contain so much contrapuntal depth, so much washed-ashore feeling, the quiet and deeply rebellious spirit of the age. A true D.I.Y. composer before there was such a thing (well, I count Berlioz as the progenitor of this; many will, of course, argue. But who else? And Chopin kept it small) A complex persona and a composer of genius, no question.
I’ve always believed deeply he deserved better than Hugh Grant.
So here it is, 2010, the bicentennial Chopin-iversary. One in a long series “year of the…” celebrations of. Leafing through the Lincoln Center Great Performers Catalogue, I found that the absolutely fantastic pianist Garrick Ohlsson is launching what he calls his “Chopin Project.” Automatically this excited me, because I always thought the Polish composer got a bad gradschool rap, and I hoped, secretly, that something with the tantalizing moniker of “The
Instead I offer the programme complete, of his all-Chopin concert:
Three Nocturnes, Op. 9 Two Polonaises, Op. 40 Sonata in B-flat minor Four Mazurkas Waltz in A-flat major Scherzo in B-flat minor
Before I proceed, this does sound like a concert I’d enjoy. I love a lot of these pieces—the mazurkas (all of them) just kill me, the Waltz, the sonatas, any nocturne (which does my insomniacal heart good; I’ve never had the courage to write a nocturne, much as I’ve aspired and even tried, largely because of Chopin’s). But come on, is this a “Project” or is it just another all-Chopin concert? What makes this distinct? As much as I’ve no doubt this pianist will play a fantastic concert, one we should all run out and see/hear, I wonder why the special designation.
This morning, on Twitter, I sighed digitally over this matter: why not celebrate Chopin in a different way than merely playing his not unavailable music? Allow me to enlarge on that one for a moment. If this were a Holmboe anniversary, or a Biber anniversary, then yes, a concert simply devoted to their works might be worth noting. After all, these are two great composers (bring it, because I believe it on both counts, and I also love Nielsen) who are indeed in need of a good musico-cultural dusting off, and simply playing their music would qualify as a “project” because its new, or at least uncommon. But in the case of Chopin, I bet there are 239,043 pianists playing one of his pieces in some kind of public capacity as I type this. He’s here to stay. Agree with the diagnosis of his greatness or not, you don’t have to go far to hear his work. Even if you want to stay home, how many recordings of his complete oeuvre can you own? Too many cherished outings to count. Chopin is a part of the landscape.
I don’t want this to turn into one of those program-more-new-music-or-fear-the-wrath-of-the-composer-you-cowards screeds, because I honestly believe people should be able to play what they want to play, to drink deep draughts of the music that moves them, and if Mr. Ohlsson wants to play a lot of Chopin I’m not going to look down my nose at it because Chopin is old and I am the new and I’m sitting here wondering how this kind of programming relates to what I am interested in. Hardly. Not every concert needs to include something new. It is a big world, with multiple musics contained within, and there is a lot of room for every Chopin Nocturne.
What I suppose I lamented to fellow Twitter-travelers was the lack of creativity in the labelled “project.” Chopin, after all, is a kind of mother’s milk to pianists, and since most composers (including yr. blogger here) came up playing the piano, Chopin has flowed through most of our fingers. Does this mean he’s been an influence? Who’s to say, but he—or his work, I should say—has certainly been there. And I don’t think it would be too grand a stretch to say he’s been in the mind of just about every composer who set out to write in any kind of sexy, romantic way for the piano—how could he not? He all-but invented it.
My question was: if you want to examine Chopin as a cultural phenom, It seems like just running down a smattering of his works (even rarities or chestnuts of his canon) wouldn’t do him justice, not in 2010, not two centuries since his birth. We live in a different time, a “project” ought to reflect that. Otherwise it’s just a concert.
OK, so when Twitterers (I just cannot get with the word “Tweeps,” and I don’t have the moxie of one Mellissa Hughes to say “Tweethearts”) responded, some posed the question of what a fitting tribute might be. Allow me to enlarge on that. Brace yourself for a deeply impractical finance-free Chromatic Phantasy on the idea: as someone who does not program concerts for a living (save for those dedicated to my work alone) I am obviously playing Monday Morning Quarterback here. But consider me a blogheur for a moment, hear my longing, and understand that if the odd job of making The Chopin Project in my own image was suddenly hoisted upon me by Lincoln Center (“Oh yeah, Felsenfeld, you think you could do this better than us, well alright, the job is yours”) this is where I might begin.
Commence with a non-musical reaction. Chopin had a long-standing involvement with George Sand, a writer of prominence (and occasional critical displeasure). Why not start there? Why not look into poetry of the era and pair it with pieces? Or, for that matter, why not engage poets of this era and commission them to react to pieces, projecting their words onto a screen, publishing them in a book, bringing Chopin into the 21st Century through the eyes of those so-called Unacknowledged Legislators? I’d love a program, say, with each prelude or each nocturne assigned to a living poet, and that poet showed up and read their words before the piece? Talk about your souvenir, the booklet from that concert, especially if it were only available to the attendees or published in a limited run.
Why not build a short-subject Chopin film a la Fantasia? Take the nocturnes, the scherzi, any sequence of pieces (perhaps chosen by Mr. Ohlsson) and have some of our great animators or poets of the cinema make short pieces to accompany? I think that would be a special event, especially if a hybrid SACD-DVD were released. How thrilling would that be?
And of course, we come to the inevitable end: commission twenty four composers to make a whole new set of preludes, each assigned to react to a specific work (much like Orpheus’ brilliant take on the Brandenbergs). I can imagine a whole panoply of composers of multiple styles who write well for the piano—John Corigliano, Michael Nyman, David Rakowski, Tobias Picker, David Lang, Philip Glass, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, William Bolcom, Louis Andriesen, and (maybe) even venturing slightly far afield to the piano-playing rockstar with even a small dog in this fight like Tori Amos, Rufus Wainright, Amanda Palmer—each making a fitting tribute. And of course, my next idea would never happen, but it would be completely an amazing experience if these pieces were written on condition that they never be recorded, instead making the scores available to be performed by as many pianists (and in any order) possible.
(Now that I think about it, it might be also good to include some younger composers who have a way with the piano: Ken Ueno, Mason Bates, Marc Mellits, Adam Silverman, Paola Prestini, Beata Moon, Cornelius Duffalo, hell, I’ll tackily insert myself here. Perhaps I’ve schemed two sets of new preludes?)
Any (or all) of these ideas might qualify as a project, a long and far reaching look at this composer who has had a quiet (or not so) influence on everyone who’s sat down at the piano since. And obviously these ideas far exceed the character limit.