Mak­ing mu­sic in small spa­ces

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Inna Fa­liks is a con­cert pi­anist and pro­fes­sor and head of the pi­ano depart­ment at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Mu­sic. By Inna Fa­liks

The click of my heels on wood res­onates through my liv­ing room. If I were to hear the sound of my own shoes when walk­ing off the con­cert stage, it would mean that no­body clapped at the end of my per­for­mance.

In this case, I am walk­ing from my pi­ano to the iPad to mon­i­tor the livestream of my weekly liv­ing room con­cert, Corona Fri­days. I press “stop video,” and the virtual ap­plause ap­pears in the form of small red hearts and blue thumbs up float­ing on the screen. The sound of a live au­di­ence has turned into a si­lent car­toon.

For mu­si­cians, the move from ac­tual con­cert hall to virtual con­cert hall sig­ni­fies a change in our emo­tional re­la­tion­ship with mu­sic. One of the most nar­cis­sis­tic el­e­ments of mod­ern so­ci­ety — stream­ing on so­cial me­dia — is al­low­ing mu­si­cians to com­mune with their art form on an en­tirely dif­fer­ent, in­ti­mate level.

One of my teach­ers, the great Amer­i­can pi­anist Leon Fleisher, who died on Aug. 2, is likely to have en­joyed the irony of this. Fleisher taught his stu­dents about play­ing mu­sic for mu­sic’s sake. He would ask us to shelve our vir­tu­oso train­ing and for­get about fill­ing large halls with the huge, sparkling sound we had been hon­ing for years.

In­stead, he would ask us to di­rect our fo­cus in­wardly, on the in­tent of the com­poser and the mu­sic’s deep­est mes­sage. Be­gin­ning Schu­bert’s last pi­ano sonata was like join­ing a river that flowed eter­nally. A Mozart con­certo wasn’t made of notes but of cham­pagne bub­bles.

Mu­sic was more im­por­tant than us and our in­di­vid­ual prob­lems, he taught us, and we were lucky to com­mune with it. These were not easy con­cepts to grasp im­me­di­ately — they would take time and liv­ing. The may­hem of pi­ano com­pe­ti­tions and orches­tra en­gage­ments beck­oned to us, young pi­anists at the start of our ca­reers. Tak­ing time off this lad­der to con­sider the mu­sic for its own sake was not easy. Years later, forced iso­la­tion pro­vides us with this golden op­por­tu­nity.

Sud­denly, time to com­mune with the mu­sic is all we have. Per­form­ers can­not sur­vive for long with­out a live au­di­ence and a stage, but the coro­n­avirus quar­an­tine is a sud­den chance to re­cal­i­brate our­selves. With­out the pres­sure to fill a large hall with sound or to prac­tice for hours for a con­cert date, we are able to reach into the mu­sic for its own sake. We play for plea­sure and share it, if and when we feel like it.

Fleisher of­ten re­minded us in our lessons that much of the mu­sic in the clas­si­cal reper­toire was not writ­ten to be per­formed in gi­ant au­di­to­ri­ums, but smaller liv­ing room sa­lons that de­mand an in­ti­macy of sound. The pan­demic, while forc­ing mu­si­cians to find new dig­i­tal means to per­form and teach, is pro­pel­ling us back in time to the very spa­ces the mu­sic was meant for.

No longer pro­ject­ing for thou­sand-seat au­di­to­ri­ums, opera singers are trans­mit­ting art songs from their homes, in the way lieder was in­tended. Con­cert pi­anists are once again play­ing from the score, as they did be­fore Liszt in­stated the mem­o­rized pi­ano recital.

Apps like Acapella make it pos­si­ble to record sep­a­rate cham­ber mu­sic parts and com­bine them. Tech­nol­ogy and per­for­mance prac­tice are joined as string quar­tets are streamed to home com­put­ers around the world. Com­posers are in more di­a­logue with per­form­ers through virtual plat­forms and, in­spired by tech­nol­ogy to take greater risks, cre­at­ing works such as “Full Pink Moon” by Pauline Oliv­eros, di­rected by Sean Grif­fin.

Af­ter my livestream con­cert is done, I join a group of al­most 40 pi­ano stu­dents to teach a Zoom pi­ano mas­ter class.

Small squares, each with some version of a pi­ano liv­ing room scene, fill the screen like a board game. A stu­dent plays a Rach­mani­noff pre­lude, with flair un­hin­dered by the bumps of a slow in­ter­net con­nec­tion. We talk about the sound of bells and the in­ci­sive pi­anis­simo of Rach­mani­noff ’s own play­ing, how he prac­ticed in his house on Elm Drive in Bev­erly Hills and how he loved to drive. On gallery view, I watch dozens of young pi­anists google Rach­mani­noff on their phones. In their own way, they will home in on the in­tent of the com­poser.

I miss the magic and spon­tane­ity of sculpt­ing the pi­ano sound in a hall, as I project it out to an au­di­ence. Yet, as I con­sider the pass­ing of Leon Fleisher during quar­an­tine, I think there has never been a bet­ter time to re­ex­am­ine mu­sic mak­ing for its own sake.

Hiroyuki Ito Getty Im­ages

LEON FLEISHER, who died on Aug. 2, shown per­form­ing with the New York Phil­har­monic in De­cem­ber 2008. He taught his stu­dents about play­ing mu­sic for mu­sic’s sake.

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