The Greatest Pianist

How on Earth would one determine “the greatest pianist?” Slapping the keys accurately seems to be what the classical music armchair critics use to determine “the greatest pianist.”

Hola a todos. At the Conservatory where I trained (I majored in piano and was trained as a Performance Pianist even though I was in the Music Education degree programme), I don’t remember anyone — students, Faculty or the Dean of the Conservatory — talking about the “greatest pianist” or the “greatest clarinetist” or the “greatest conductor” or the “greatest” you-name-it. I didn’t hear that mentality in the Conservatory.

But reading the comments from the classical music armchair critics under U-toob videos, nearly every internationally-renowned celebrity pianist you can think of is considered “the greatest pianist” by one commenter or another. These are self-appointed experts. One wonders if any of them have ever studied any musical instrument(s). That’s followed by many commenters copying each other’s comments and describing the performance as “sublime.” So one sees the word “sublime” going down the page from one commenter after the other. I’ve seen the word “sublime” used by “professional” pretentious music critics, which the classical music armchairs try to emulate. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: “The tone the strings produced at times in the Adagio was sublime, floating a gauzy hush over Lewis’s whispering playing. But on the whole they sounded detached, especially in the outer movements, where real conviction is called for.” A “gauzy hush?” “Real conviction?” Oh good lord. Can these reviewers be any more pretentious? Why can’t they talk in plain language rather than their lame attempt at writing poetry and being philosophical (Dahling)? This is one of the reasons why the classical music tradition is dying and has the stodgy stereotype it does as being music for “the well-heeled, Dahling.” I’m surprised the reviewer didn’t refer to “a very convincing reading.” That’s usually in there somewhere! In some cases, the armchair critics base “the greatest pianist that ever lived” on a single performance of one piece. Then some people will name-drop their favourite celebrity conductor as “the greatest conductor.” Of course it’s never a conductor you’ve not heard of. It’s always some internationally-known celebrity “household” name.

I find it all so immature, trite and tiresome frankly. Why don’t these amateurish armchair critics find a new hobby such as, oh, I don’t know, maybe flower arranging or finding something that needs polishing. Don’t they have any Royal Doulton with hand-painted periwinkles that needs polishing?

To begin with, how on Earth would one determine who is “the greatest pianist?” And who even cares?! Why is that even important? What criteria would one use to make such a determination? The same goes for “the greatest conductor.” I don’t recall anyone ever saying, “the greatest Chorus.” Apparently people are not that into Orchestra Choruses to swoon over them with “the greatest” pabulum. Well, unfortunately choristers are seen by the public as Second Class Musicians. Choristers are not considered “real musicians” in the musically-ignorant mind of many concert-goers, many of whom are there just for show and to brag to others about, “We go to the Symphony, Dahling,” while they sleep or read the programme through most of it. Might as well be at home listening to a CD!

Most people have no idea whatsoever was is involved and required to be in an Orchestra Chorus or anything about the weeks of choral preparation for performances. I think most people say, “They’re just the Chorus.” Interestingly, they don’t say “they’re just the Orchestra” when referring to the musicians on stage playing their instruments.

I recently watched Marta Argerich (I spell her first name the way it’s pronounced en español since she was born in Bueno Aires, Argentina) perform a piano concerto. She played beautifully and I find her enjoyable to watch. Despite her “legendary” status and her being a child prodigy, she’s not let that go to her head. She comes across as very down to Earth, humble and modest. The sign of a true artist. At the end of her performances, she immediately gets up from the piano and her hand gestures signal about her performance, “Oh it was no big deal, but thank you.” I have to admit that Marta did put me on edge near the beginning of the concerto she played when she was playing octaves in both hands. I was concerned at the tempo at which she took the octaves that she was going to have a splat, which can happen if the pianist does not control his/her playing due to a possible adrenaline rush. She didn’t make any mistakes there but she looked like she was about to! I mentioned this to mi amigo/my friend who watched the performance with me and he said he thought the same thing. He thought she took those octaves a bit faster than she might safely play them. If she were younger, I probably wouldn’t have had that concern, but she was 77 years old when she played this difficult concerto. You’d never know she was 77 by the way she plays. Personally, I would have played the octave passages a tad slower to guarantee no mistakes, but that’s just me, and I mean no criticism of her by this. Just an observation. She played damn well for 77 years old, and to play that piece from memory. I’m usually not all that impressed by “from memory” performances — I personally like to see pianists using their scores; everybody else uses their score and using your score does not at all mean that one is not prepared which is what some ignorant people erroneously think! — but to play that concerto from memory was quite a feat and she had no endurance problems that I noticed. The only reason I bring this up is because her “from memory” performance showed me that she doesn’t have any hints of dementia at age 77, which is good to see. And her endurance is still good at that age. She did have cancer awhile back, but seems to have recovered from that fortunately. I wish her continued good health.

In the comments under Marta’s performance, one armchair critic after the other was calling her “the greatest pianist that ever lived.” How could they say that when they’ve not heard all pianists who have lived? Stupid people. They’ve likely never heard one of my piano professors who plays just as well as Marta, but my professor chose not to go into concertising but rather into academia where she was Chairwoman of the Keyboard Department until her retirement. She was certainly the talk of the Conservatory when I trained there. She had a stellar reputation.

And why is “the greatest pianist” even important? And again, how would one make that determination intelligently?

Why does there have to be a “greatest pianist?” Or a “greatest” anything? What is wrong with people and their shallow mindset? It’s such simplistic, shallow thinking. People! Ugh. It reminds me of how USians have been brainwashed to make themselves feel better by the US Oligarchy/government that the US is allegedly “the greatest country.” Grandiose, delusional wishful-thinking. If one does some traveling around the world with an open mind, one sees that that’s not the case at all. There are many countries far better than the US, with its arrogant and misplaced superiority complex. Countries that are genuinely “great” are secure with themselves and don’t feel the need to strut around the world chest-beating, bullying other nations and bragging at every opportunity to others about their supposed greatness. A nation’s greatness will shine on its own.

I find this “greatest” pabulum a case of simple slogans for simple minds.

What about the “greatest Orchestra Chorus?”

A comment about the “greatest Chorus” is not one that I’ve ever seen. Nobody has written, “This is the greatest Chorus ever.” That’s probably because even the finest Choruses get so little credit to begin with so that that’s likely why I’ve never seen a comment about “this is the greatest Chorus ever.”

I would take a guess that your average concert-goer can’t hear the difference between a superbly-prepared Symphony Chorus (all trained musicians) and their average podunk Church Choir (most of whom have never studied music), even though no comparison between the two choral ensembles can intelligently be made. No, the “greatest” drivel is usually over individual celebrity artists (including conductors) and that’s pretty much it. I may have seen “this is the greatest Orchestra ever” but I’m not sure about that. But it’s not something I’ve seen often.

So which Chorus would be “the greatest?” As a symphonic choral person having sung in three major Orchestra Choruses in the US, I cannot tell you which Chorus was or is the “greatest.” I don’t think in those terms. All three of the Orchestra Choruses I had the privilege to perform with were superb. (Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington, Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus and Margaret Hillis’s-interm Chorus Director/Vance George’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus). Not because I was in them, but they were superb Choruses before I joined them which is why I wanted to be a chorister in them. It also depends upon what piece the Chorus is performing. Just like some other musicians, some Choruses are not consistent in their performances. They will give a superb Mendelssoh’s Elias, for example, but their Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in D may not be consistently as good for one reason or another. Often it can also have to do with a different group of choristers and who auditioned for a particular season and which choristers left the Chorus that season. But “the greatest Chorus?” That would be like me saying, “The University of Maryland Chorus was the greatest Chorus that ever existed.” I would not say that. The Maryland Chorus was absolutely superb, but I wouldn’t say they were “the greatest” or any of my favourite Orchestra Choruses, including the Chicago Symphony Chorus under Margaret Hillis during the Solti years. I just don’t get into that silly and juvenile “greatest” way of thinking. To me it’s a case of immaturity. It’s such sheeple thinking. I find it quite tacky and trite frankly. Why?

Because what we’re talking about here is Art. It’s Art, people. You can’t determine “the greatest” with Art.

Music is Art. Art is often subjective. And one performance by certain artists might be stellar and other performances by the same artists might not be as good. They may have had an “off” day even though they were splendidly prepared. It’s not easy to produce consistently stellar performances. Then what do you say? They’re not “the greatest.” That would be like defining who is the greatest painter or sculptor that ever lived.

I remember mentioning Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus to one of the parishioners where I was Organist-Choirmaster. It was an Anglo-Catholic parish (High Church, Anglican Communion). I was talking positively one day about Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus at the time and this parishioner made it clear to me that he did not like the Chicago Symphony Chorus because of their dark tone, their “sound.” He said, “They sound like they’re singing through hay.” I thought: Well good lord! That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think?” I said: Well I disagree. They have a lovely, warm, rich dark tone, similar to Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They are one of my favourites, and at that time they (Chicago) were winning one Grammy Awards after the other in the Best Choral Performance category under Ms Hillis when Solti was conductor. The point being: This parishioner and I disagreed on that.

There is one symphony orchestra that — in my opinion — consistently gives stellar performances and that is hr-Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt, but I would not say “they are the greatest Orchestra today or that ever existed” in part, because I’ve not heard all the orchestras in the world, past or present to make such a determination. But this doesn’t seem to matter to the self-appointed classical music armchair critics. They seem to mindlessly grant The Greatest Award rather randomly. They don’t seem to have any stringent criteria or requirements for doing so. But upon reflection, I don’t think most of them know much or anything about music to make such a determination. With them it’s usually, “the greatest [fill in blank]” and or “sublime” with their cookie-cutter comments.

Earlier I mentioned Art being subjective. But politics in music and one’s devout allegiance to an ensemble can also play a part. I know all about that from experience. I remember when I was a chorister in the Choral Arts Society of Washington in my second season with them. I was also very interested in the superb University of Maryland Chorus, in part, because they were getting engagements with the National Symphony Orchestra that I wish the Choral Arts Society had been chosen for. Over time, I learned that The Maryland Chorus was our competition by some of the things I heard some Choral Arts choristers say about them. There was quite a one-way jealousy between the Choral Arts Society and the University of Maryland Chorus. At the time, Antal Doráti was the conductor of the NSO (National Symphony Orchestra) and he preferred The Maryland Chorus and he chose them as often as possible to perform with the NSO. Well, I made the mistake one day of inviting an acquaintance of mine from the Choral Arts Society to go hear the University of Maryland Chorus perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in D with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, conducted by Claudio Abbado. Some choristers in the Choral Arts Society were jealous that The Maryland Chorus was invited to perform with the Royal Concertgebouw OA. I remember when Norman Scribner announced at a Choral Arts rehearsal that “a Chorus that shall remain nameless is performing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this week at the Kennedy Center.” I asked the guy sitting next to me who Norman was talking about (even though I knew) and he said, “The Maryland Chorus.” It was then that I realised there was this friction/jealousy between the two Orchestra Choruses, although it was a one-way jealousy. The Maryland Chorus was not jealous of the Choral Arts Society. A couple years later when I sang with Maryland, they (none of the choristers or Dr Traver) ever talked about any other Orchestra Chorus. Then at another Choral Arts’s rehearsal, one of the basses in Choral Arts made up this story/lie about how Dr Traver (Founder and Director of the University of Maryland Chorus) “stormed into the Kennedy Center and demanded that his Maryland Chorus perform with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.” I thought: Really? That’s a bit risky of Dr Traver to do. Well, it was a juicy story, but it was a lie. After I sang with The Maryland Chorus and had moved to San Francisco, I asked Dr Traver about how Maryland got that engagement with the RCOA. I didn’t tell Dr Traver what I had heard in a Choral Arts rehearsal. Dr Traver told me that Margaret Hillis, Founder and Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, had recommended the University of Maryland Chorus to Claudio Abbado for those performances. Abbado had contacted Ms Hillis for a recommendation of an Orchestra Chorus in the DC area. Ms Hillis had worked with Dr Traver and the UMD Chorus on the College Park campus on one occasion — a choral workshop type thing — so she was very familiar with Maryland.

I went to hear Maryland’s performance with the Royal Concergebouw Orchestra Amsterdam and it was glorious. The Washington Post reviewer said the same when he wrote, “Dr Paul Traver’s University of Maryland Chorus was glorious throughout.” They gave a stellar performance. Ah, but too bad it was not recorded. But I had made the mistake of inviting an acquaintance of mine from the Choral Arts Society to the performance with me. After the performance, I asked my acquaintance what she thought about the UMD Chorus. I quickly realised it was a mistake on my part to have even invited her. Her blinders-on devout allegiance was to the Choral Arts Society of Washington therefore she couldn’t bring herself to say anything positive what-so-ever about The Maryland Chorus. All she did say was, “Any Chorus can sing loudly.” Ugh. I thought to myself: That’s all you have to say about it, is it? Why did you come to this performance when you knew you couldn’t enjoy it because it was a rival Chorus that you have been brainwashed to dislike because of this silly rivalry between the Choral Arts Society and the University of Maryland Chorus? It’s not their fault that they get engagements that the Choral Arts Society doesn’t get. Dr Traver accepts the engagements they are offered. Why do you hold that against them? It’s not the fault of The Maryland Chorus that conductor Doráti prefers them and that Margaret Hillis in Chicago recommended them to Abbado when he asked her to recommend to him a Chorus in the DC area. So why do you resent that and sneer your nose at The Maryland Chorus? But I didn’t feel like getting into it with her after a superb performance. She made me feel rather disgusted-depressed that I even bothered to ask her to come. I felt like saying to her: Yes, any Chorus can sing loudly including your Choral Arts Society, but not every Chorus can sing loudly beautifully, as you just heard from The Maryland Chorus. I guess she didn’t hear how beautifully they sang quietly in the Kyrie and with impeccable diction, and the Sanctus and the other movements, one of the indicators of choral excellence. But it just shows you that two well-trained choristers can think differently about the same performance, especially if one of the choristers wears “partisan” blinders, so to speak. Yes, she had this blinders-on approach that nothing that The Maryland Chorus did was as good as the Choral Arts Society. Yet, again, the Maryland Chorus was the most-often-selected Chorus and practically the Official Chorus of the National Symphony Orchestra during Antal Doráti’s years.

I did not have this blind allegiance to any Chorus. I thought that both the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the University of Maryland Chorus were superb. I liked them both and sang with them both in different seasons. They were not clones of each other. They each had a different “sound.” And they did different repertoire. Maryland was especially known for Beethoven’s Ninth (which they performed over 38 times to stellar reviews) during their existence. They were also known for their Mahler’s Resurrection (Symphony No. 2) and the Verdi Requiem. The Maryland Chorus had a darker, warmer sound that sounded more like the Chicago Symphony Chorus. In fact, I often compared them to Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus, because that was Maryland’s level of choral excellence.

At that time, as I recall, the Choral Arts Society (CASW) was sometimes compared to The London Bach Choir or the München Bach Choir (a brighter sound). The soprano section of the CASW had a lovely flute-like sound which was especially gorgeous on descants for our holiday performances at the Kennedy Center or when they were singing the cantus firmus of Baroque pieces. I enjoyed listening to both Choruses. I also enjoyed Robert Shafer’s Oratorio Society of Washington (which is now called The Washington Chorus) when they performed. As for my CASW acquaintance? She turned me off, and shortly after that I turned her off.

What about the “greatest conductor?”

I’ve previously written about that: Dudamel does it best! No, Solti! No, Bernstein! No, Karajan! The musical armchair critics have their favourite celebrity conductor — and as I said earlier it’s always a big-name celebrity conductor; it’s never a conductor you’ve never heard of — so they love to name-drop the conductor’s name. Nazi party member Herbert von Karajan’s name is often name-dropped by the classical music armchair critics. He’s the messiah-figure conductor for many of the classical music armchair critics. You might think that they would try to find a conductor not connected with the Nazi Party to worship and glorify as a conductor, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. Perhaps that tells us even more than we cared to know about the armchair critics. You can argue with ClassicFM about that at that link; don’t write to me about it. (The truth hurts doesn’t it?) But I think this name-dropping of celebrity musicians is intended to give the armchair critic commenter credibility as some sort of (self-appointed) expert.

Back to the “greatest pianist”

Once again, how does one determine “the greatest” pianist, for example? What criteria one would use? With the classical music armchair critics, I’ve noticed that it seems to only require one piece that the pianist played and his/her performance is better than so and so (according to them), and that makes that pianist “the greatest pianist.” The same goes for “the greatest” conductor or “the greatest” you-name-it.

There are so many superb, splendid musicians around the world, including some you’ve not heard perform or heard of. Therefore, why can’t people leave it at that? Rather than creating a “Greatest” category. I’m so sick of sheeple writing this shallow caca in comments. And they consistently do so.

Many of these arm chair critics are so impressed by speed and calisthenics at the piano rather than the pianist playing with a lovely singing tone. Shows how much they don’t know about the Art of Piano Playing. Have they ever studied piano? It’s much easier to be an armchair critic than to go through the hard work of studying any instrument.

I heard one of the judges at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition say (and I agreed with him), “I’ll take a lovely singing tone any day over speed.” Absolutely. Yet the armchair critics go for speed and are impressed by a pianist “slapping the keys accurately.” (roll eyes). Sigh. People!

One of my piano professors at the Conservatory where I trained (I had two different piano professors during my training) could have easily been a concert artist. She plays as well as Marta Argerich, but she chose to go into academia and not concertising. So she wouldn’t be included in “the greatest” list because these classical music armchair critics have never heard of her because she’s not an international/celebrity name. Yet she’s equal to Marta Argerich as a performer and I feel fortunate to having studied with her during my Freshman year at the Conservatory.

It’s fine for someone to say that they thoroughly enjoyed someone’s performance and what a superb artist s/he is. I just wish that the musical sheeple would stop this “the greatest” pabulum. Because again — for the thick people and there’s absolutely no shortage of them if your experience is anything like mine! — how does one determine who is “the greatest” among all living and dead musicians when one has not heard them all? Again, the “greatest pianist” could be a pianist that you’ve never heard because they taught rather than engaging in the grueling life of a concert artist.

Of course I don’t expect the sheeple to suspend their “greatest” nonsense. I just felt the need to vent about it because I’m so tired of seeing this “greatest pianist” drivel in U-toob comments (and the overuse of the word “sublime”) from the self-appointed experts known as the classical music armchair critics. Chau.—el barrio rosa