Angst (in (and/or despite) the Canon)

Yesterday I stumbled upon a very interesting review with lots to discuss.

Wayne Lee Gay, Dallas Morning News, Nouyuki Tsujii disappoints with too-familiar program at Bass Hall, September 23, 2009

Really, it's a pretty thoughtful and well-written piece, with particular musical criticisms of the sort that are the specific and special purview of piano critic geeks. I appreciate this, since discerning super-subtle coloristic nuances or finer points of pedal techniques in piano playing isn't really my focus.

Obviously bent on inducing mass depression among Fort Worth music lovers, 2009 Cliburn co-gold medalist Nouyuki Tsujii dragged out one overworked warhorse after another Tuesday in the opening concert of the 2009-10 Cliburn Concert series at Bass Performance Hall.

This is an imaginative and colorful opening, and I really liked it. The implication, though, is that boring old standard repertoire is depressing, which is misleading.

Figure 1: [Probably] Tsujii

That's not what this review is about. However, a cursory examination, I suppose, might lead some, er, temporally-challenged Feature Article Title Generator-Person to title this article Nouyuki Tsujii disappoints with too-familiar program, which is sort of like Ann Coulter banner ads on progressive websites owing to the derisive mention of said pundit's name on the page.

Presenting an evening devoted to extremely well-known works is a questionable strategy for any concert artist.

Agreed. What's unsaid, perhaps, is that this is also, or perhaps even more, a questionable strategy for any arts management concern, but that's for another time.

First, it invites comparison with great performers, past and present, who have interpreted the same pieces, and Tsujii is clearly not ready to play on the same field with some of them.

Figure 2: John Field, whose name is, curiously, uncapitalized, and, further, is not mentioned in the program. Huh.

A little harsh for a Van Cliburn medalist, but fair. What else?

Second, it causes an artist to neglect exploring and presenting less familiar but often equally great music, old or new.

Also a valid complaint, if somewhat understandable for a new talent cutting his teeth on a performance career. Not everyone's going to specialize in new music, of course, and learning new material for a recital is much harder and more time-consuming than performing music you already know.

Those aspects aside, performing Beethoven's Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas back to back is a bad idea for any pianist.

They're long? Difficult? Or (as the title of the article insinuates) too well-known?

They are two of the composer's darkest creations.


Played one after the other, they deliver almost unrelieved gloom.

Gloom, and also: arpeggios. But mostly gloom.

After the intermission, Tsjuii deepened the effect by following up with Chopin's equally pessimistic Ballade in G minor.

Man, that guy must hate music! Or...the audience! Maybe his home was forclosed upon, or his 401k's a shambles. Or his sympathies with the plight of economically suffering and war-weary Americans led to programming that reflects the overcast mood of the time. Or perhaps he's clinically depressed.

Or not.

In a second half devoted entirely to Chopin, Tsujii adhered to a bleakly monotonous tonal quality and an often overly heavy left hand.

See, normally this is the sort of piano-specific criticism that I appreciate, but now it sounds like his tonal palate reflected his overall dour mood, and also (cleverly and recursively!) the entire program.

A set of lively mazurkas from Opus 24 provided the unlikely high point of the evening,...

Unlikely? Why?

...largely because they lend themselves well to Tsujii's almost nonchalant approach.

The mazurkas are boring, which, I guess, when compared to Gloomy Old Man Beethoven, is downright cheerful?

In the two nocturnes from Opus 27, he continued to avoid any real variety of color.

Again, a fair enough assessment, insightful even. But in the context of the review, it sounds like his tone suffered from the same ennui as the program.

The final work on the recital, Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, emerged with workaday blandness.

More again still...

In response to an enthusiastic but far from unanimous ovation,

Translation: Our reviewer wasn't clapping.

Tsujii brought out Chopin's Berceuse, the almost invincible charm of which nearly succumbed to the pianist's unwillingness to explore any variety of tone, and the Revolutionary etude, presented with cold speed and bravura.


Figure 3: Chopin. While sickly and boring, at least he wasn't all depressing like Beethoven.

Lastly, in retrospect, the title completely misses the point of the article. Woo! Go Dallas Morning News Feature Headline Writer Person!

It turns out that it's not tired old warhorses that are depressing and disappointing. It's Beethoven!

Good times.


Anonymous said...

Maybe he was sitting in an acoustic "dead spot."

Empiricus said...

Bah-dum. Tsss!

jqh said...

The subtext of this review adds another interesting dimension to analyze. Tsujii is a blind pianist who learns music largely by rote memorization of playback (in interviews he acknowledges preferring this to the slower method of reading Braille scores). He was a co-gold medalist at the Cliburn, causing a tempest in the teapot of piano geekery. (I listened to a lot of his playing during the competition and found it as devoid of coloristic variety.) The review seems very carefully calibrated to emphasize that Tsujii is not a very interesting musician while saying nothing about his handicap or the competition controversy. I wonder if that was Gay's strategy or his editor's?

Sator Arepo said...

Wow, jqh. I had no idea, and the article obviously makes no mention of that. More to think about, surely. Thanks.