Dances with the Piano
She walks in glorious, head held high, a shimmering gown with a slit to the thigh even though it’s noon.She looks the part of the diva. And my god, she is. Her name is Rosinna Grieco and I’m here for the noontime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre. On the program is a Bach Toccata and a Liszt Sonata and this young woman immediately takes charge. Usually I will close my eyes, removing myself to a personal reverie , my own mindfulness where the music overtakes my head and I am transported somewhere beyond sight and touch. But I cannot take my eyes off Rosinna. She commands and is a commanding presence.
Immediately I am astounded by the space around her that becomes charged as if she is an extension of the piano, or the other way around. The surrounding negative space, the backdrop to her presence becomes alive, the air that encloses her vibrant as her fingers prancing on the keyboard create precise shapes moving up and down the piano. I do not want to close my eyes because I am witnessing a performance of music in which the pianist is deepening and extending understanding , echoing Yeats’ poem of the impossibility of separating the dancer from the dance in “Among School Children.” And in taking in this moment, I cannot look away, mesmerized. As audience, we are is all fixated.
When the Liszt is preformed, I become even more aware of the relationship between player and played. She seems to be singing or talking to her instrument, her face radiating reaction to the music. In the quiet moments, she seems to coo, to encourage her fingers gliding, coaxing the tones to the shades and diversity of the lightness of the piece, but equally, she practically jumps off her stool during the passionate chords that resound darkly, ravenously, thundering sections where ominous clouds gather. The contrasts between light and dark, gentle and intrusive are made explicit as the performer herself is the vehicle uniting music and emotion. We are breathless, happily depleted at the conclusion, no one wanting to move and disturb the enchantment.
I think too of earlier in my week when Cathy Tile presented her lecture on Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Here the music of Shostakovich is the subject that frames the story, a three part concerto. Barnes’ narrator reflects that a soul can be betrayed three ways: what others do to us; what others make us do to ourselves; and what we voluntarily do .His narrative presents the musician at the beck and call of Power, as directed by Stalin.Fearing for his life and his family’s , Shostakovich regretfully composes nostalgic, comforting, sentimental works for “ the common man.”
I think of Madeleine Thein’s book Do Not Tell Us That We Have Nothing , and her take on two musicians in China and their conflict between party loyalty and the need to create original music…and the betrayal that accompanies being made to conform to the dictates of megalomania in oppressive regimes. Hitler too, like Mao and Stalin, rejected innovative music, the first inmates in Dachau being those dissident musicians who dared to transgress by performing jazz.
At first I can empathize with Shostakovich, his guilt, neuroses, and his fear and consider that the average person has no choice but to lower their eyes to the ground, shuffle on , but my moral meter, my husband reminds me that Shostakovich wasn’t the “ordinary man” and DO remember Nureyev and Baryshnikov and Solzhenitsyn who did leave, people so openly recognized as brilliant and talented that they could control and continue their artistic lives away from Mother Russia. At Tile’s lecture, someone suggested that Shostakovich was too Russian to defect and so he stayed, worked, suffered tremendous guilt and produced art that conformed to the dictator’s taste.
So our judgment, at the very edge of our sensibility, is held just there, not condemning him. Barnes writes perhaps rationalizing ,” …to be a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change- which made it, in a way, a kind of courage….” To endure is in deed courage, to bear witness, to continue on when there is no or little hope – yes, for the common person. However when one is outstanding, one with options, and a recognized artist who bends to power, we have to question. For if a great composer, one granted amnesty in his transgressions , allowed the perks of his position and even sent off to the United States on tour, is unable to speak out, how can there be hope for the common person?
Today, the passion of Rosinna Grieco inspired me, changing my grey day to one full of possibility. And it made me think of all the brave souls , small souls, speaking out, protesting against Donald Trump and his restrictive measures that tighten the noose for women, minorities, immigrants… How can one not be impressed by them, these tiny Davids willing to take on the Goliaths of the swamp. As great as Shostakovich was and his music, perhaps he might have been broken musical barriers and instead of betraying his colleagues, Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Khachaturian , encouraged lesser lights to sway to their own music.
Reminder to son: Get those piano keys fixed!