Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Piano Master

A year or two ago when pianist Gary Graffman came to Beijing, I missed his concert and regretted it. Which is why when he returned again this year for the 12th Beijing International Music Festival, I made sure I got a ticket.

He performed tonight at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, one of my favourite venues, partly because it's located in a park setting, and partly because the space is small and intimate.

Now 81, Graffman gave a wonderful recital, his left hand flawlessly and gracefully caressing the keys, so comfortable with the piano and knowing what he wanted to say with the music.

He has played with his left hand for the past three decades after he sprained the ring finger of his right hand in 1979. Thinking he could rework passages to avoid using his injured finger, this only exacerbated the situation, injuring his right hand altogether.

However, Graffman was famous well before being known as a left-handed pianist.

Born in New York of Russian immigrants, Graffman's father was a violinist and expected his son to follow suit. But the younger Graffman was drawn to the piano and began playing it at the age of three. He entered the Curtis School of Music at seven and 13 years later at the age of 20 became a world-famous pianist. In 1948 he won the prestigious Leventritt Award and studied under Vladimir Horowitz. Even though Horowitz taught Graffman piano, the student had his own ideas of how the music should sound.

In 1980 Graffman joined the Curtis School of Music and shortly after published his memoir, I Really Should Be Practicing.

Today he teaches superstar Lang Lang and upcoming star Yujia Wang.

This probably explains the pretty good turn out, coming to see Lang Lang's teacher. On the whole, the audience was respectful, hardly a cellphone went off, but a few tried to take pictures who were quickly told off by staff. One woman who looked like she was taking a picture on her cellphone claimed she was texting her friend. When the attendant told her not to, she refused to listen to him and he turned back to see she looking at her phone again. She reiterated that she wasn't taking a picture and he had to ask her again not to use her mobile. What's so important that she has to text now, unless she finds the concert boring?

Graffman dressed simply in a suit and tie, complete with a tie clip and his dark thick-rimmed glasses. Though he used his left hand to carry his music to the piano, he would use his right hand to hold onto the edge of the piano periodically or place it in his lap. The right hand also made a great page turner.

If you closed your eyes, you would not think he was playing with only one hand -- through clever composition and the use of the pedal, it sounded like someone playing with both hands.

At the end of the concert Graffman played an encore -- a reworked short adaptation of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. He had recorded the piece with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1964.

It was a wonderful experience to watch the piano master in action, subtly revealing his passion for the music and drawing his audience along for the journey. But even more so, his performance show the triumph over adversity. Graffman is an example that setbacks should not stop you -- but in fact makes you discover strengths and talents you never knew you had before.

Here's the program:

Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 9, No. 1
Alexander Scriabin: Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
Alexander Scriabin/Reise: Etude in C-Sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Carl Reinecke: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 179
Johann Sebastian Bach/Johannes Brahms: Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

Max Reger: Four Special Studies
Leon Kirchner: For the Left Hand
John Corigliano: "For the Left Hand Alone" from Etude Fantasy
Felix Blumenfeld: Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 36
Leopold Godowsky: Selections from Fifty-Three Studies after Chopin's Etudes - Study No. 13 in E-flat minor and Study No. 41 in B minor

1 comment:

ks said...

the pieces are somewhat unfamiliar to me, except the chopin. how come he does not play something more common or easier.