Pianists and their needless theatrics

Hola a todos. I see this from time-to-time in performances. I saw it the other night while watching a performance of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in c. The guy played well and I enjoyed his performance. Very clean playing on that superb Hamburg Steinway & Sons Model D concert grand piano. His interpretation was different in part than I’ve heard the piece played. I learned this concerto during two Summer breaks from the Conservatory where I trained (first movement during the first Summer, second and third movements the next Summer), so I’m extremely familiar with the piece.

This pianist was bouncing around on the piano bench at times and I said to my PC screen: You don’t need to bounce; that’s nothing but needless theatrics requiring even more energy than necessary to play the piece. And you have to learn how to bounce. Put that energy into your playing, not into bouncing. Why the needless theatrics? Well, he either learned this from his piano professor — some pianists try to mirror whatever their teacher does rather than be their own individual — or he’s trying to make the piece look difficult to play. Why? The Rachmaninov Second is difficult to play but the finest trained pianists in the world are taught to make even the most difficult repertoire look easy — or as easy as possible — to play. This guy didn’t do that. Then there were his hands which froze in the air above the keyboard after playing some passages. Mi amigo/My friend was watching this with me and he asked: I don’t quite get that. Why is he doing that? It looks like the pianist wants to fly or float away. I wonder what the audience thinks about his hands being frozen in time in the air up above the keys near the music rack (if that were being used)? I said: I don’t know what they (the audience) think about it but I’d feel embarrassed to do that, and there’s absolutely no intelligent need for it. It’s just part of an act. The pianist is trying to be all “poetic and philosophical” Dahling and all that rubbish or something. It’s needless theatrics. That’s the bottom line.

Needless theatrics are intended to impress shallow and superficial people who usually don’t know anything about music. These people are usually “wowed” by needless theatrics and body movements. And the finest trained pianist — or musicians for that matter — don’t resort to theatrics to “save” their playing. Some of the finest pianists of the past generation didn’t engage in any of this nonsense. They didn’t gaze at the ceiling with limpid eyes, or freeze their hands in the air, or look like they’re having an orgasm on the piano bench. Mi amigo said: You always say that. I said: Well that’s because that’s what they look like they’re doing!

I guess I should tell you that this pianist is Asian. Normally I wouldn’t say a word about his ethnicity because it’s irrelevant since music is the international language crossing all human-made geographic borders. And I detest nationalism in music, such as “Russians play Rachmaninov the best” and all that rubbish that the conservative (and often musically-ignorant) classical music armchair critics engage in. I asked an Asian friend about this years ago. I asked him what he thought about it. I kept seeing Asian pianists — particularly females — with poor posture at the piano (her nose nearly touching the keyboard) and engaging in loads of needless theatrics. Some other pianists of other ethnic groups do this as well, including some Russian pianists. But I’ve noticed this particularly within the Asian culture. My Asian friend said: Well maybe it’s a cultural thing. Asians are taught to not express their emotions and maybe they feel that it is only through their music that they have the license or permission to show any emotions and they let emotions rip when performing. No holding back. It almost looks like they’re adding a type of (needless) choreography to their playing at times. I think that’s probably the case. And to this day I still see this and why wouldn’t I? Cultures don’t change much or at all over the years/generations.

As for the bouncing on the bench, he was doing that but recently I saw an internationally-known Russian pianist banging the keys and bouncing his way through the third movement of the Rachmaninov Third. All of that was unnecessary too. He was lifting his hands up to about the music rack level which was so silly.

Other musicians engage in needless theatrics at times, but I’ve mostly seen this from pianists. I rarely see orchestral musicians playing with theatrics. Soloists from the orchestra can be seen playing with theatrics, such as if the First Concertmaster is playing a solo, but it’s usually soloists. It’s usually pianists and some others. Some vocal soloists also get into theatrics where they turn a symphonic choral performance into a cheap and tawdry opera by their needless theatrics and screaming and wobbling vibrato where one has to try to guess what pitch they’re singing, or rather screaming.

I wrote this article in response to that performance of the Rachmaninov PC#2 as a comment I’d like to post there. But of course I wouldn’t be allowed to say any of this in the comments under the video of this performance because all that’s allowed there is stuff such as “best performance ever” and “greatest pianist ever.” Sigh. How can anyone say “greatest pianist ever” when one has not heard all pianists ever — including pianists who teach in academia and who could have been an international concert artist but chose to go into teaching — to make that “greatest pianist ever” determination? And why does there have to be a “greatest pianist ever?” That mentality is so trite and sheeple. Drives me up the wall. But I think these are people who really know nothing about music who make these asinine comments.

Also, I don’t like to be critical of other musicians because I know how that feels, so that’s why I’m not giving the name of this Asian pianist. More nationalism came out in the comment section. Usually for this particular orchestra, they rarely have any comments in Korean. For this performance, the Korean language saturated the comment section. Where did all of these people come from? I thought: If only Koreans could get all hot for all the other fine musicians around the world and for this orchestra as they do over this guy, regardless of their ethnic background.

As mi amigo said: I suspect it was the Asian pianist’s needless theatrics that “wowed” the Koreans and that they fell for. Probably. Or the fact that the pianist was of Korean ancestry was sufficient. Chau.—el barrio rosa