I had a long day yesterday.
It began with an early morning appointment in Manhattan. It concluded (the Manhattan part of my day) with a concert at Carnegie Hall.
The concert program included a performance of a lengthy Schubert piano sonata which I have never heard before and two Shostakovich works for piano: his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932-33) and his Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 87 (1950-51). The pianist, who is young and is apparently a rising star, was Michail Lifits, who lives in Germany.
Somehow, despite my lack of technical knowledge when it comes to musicianship, I knew that he is very good, has a mastery of technique. I liked that he played without histrionics (and affected a like stage manner). Yet his playing was the polar opposite of UNexpressive. It doesn’t overwhelm or dazzle you. It thoroughly engages you. Totally. Before you quite realize what is happening.
I couldn’t help making comparisons with two recent all-Schubert concerts featuring the pianist Mitsuko Uchida that I attended. Dame Mitsuko (as she is now known; she lives in the UK) has quite a following. She is known as a Schubert as well as Mozart interpreter/performer and is doing a series of concerts of all the Schubert sonatas. She plays elegantly and, as far as I can tell, flawlessly. But her performances bore me. Was it — is it — because they were or are too timid? Is that the right word? I had heard yet another pianist perform my favorite Schubert piano sonata, the Sonata in A major, D. 959, a month or so. His performance was anything but “timid,” but it didn’t satisfy me either.
What is it about my experience with Schubert lately? Mitsuko Uchida played several of his lesser known sonatas and they did nothing for me. Can I be thinking that about Schubert? I said to myself. And last night Mr. Lifits played Schubert’s piano sonata in G Major, D. 894. It was good in places, but it didn’t do much for me.
The Shostakovich, after the intermission, was something else. Along with his brilliance, there is such a variety of moods in his music, both within a given piece and from one work to another. Mr. Lifits was the performer to do the preludes justice!
In between morning appointment and evening concert, I had a lot of time to kill in the City. I met my wife and a friend of hers for lunch. We had a great time.
After my wife left, I fell into a funk. I would have liked to go home with her, but I had the concert and had to kill time. I was tired and felt depressed. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the library and a Starbucks, plus walking uptown. Brooding. In a mood the opposite of sanguine.
I was so emotionally drained that by the time I got to the concert I didn’t want to be there.
But, what happened was that the concert focused my attention — outside of myself. I had to sit still and pay attention for about two hours the same way a student does in a class or a churchgoer at a Sunday service. This was good for me. If I had gone home, I would have continued brooding or have been trying to indulge myself in unsatisfactory ways, including (but not limited to) telling my wife about all the things bothering me.
I had been up practically all night the night before trying to finish an essay I had been working on for a long time. All week I had been feeling very energized and creative and was very busy.
At the concert last night, and on the way home, I thought about the week and all the little things that were annoying me, despite having gotten things accomplished. Little impediments that seemed like intrusions. People wasting my time. A therapist I was seeing once (himself a writer) made the observation to me that writing is by definition a very self-centered activity. Well (you may be wondering what this has to do with anything), all week last week I was very wrapped up in my own thoughts. When people interrupted me, or started rambling on about this or that, I felt inpatient. When they didn’t seem to be listening closely, I felt annoyed.
Guess what? I thought to myself at the concert, my thoughts and preoccupations are often not of that much interest either, certainly not to others. And, many of my petty annoyances are just that, trivial.
You’re down. Feeling put upon. Misunderstood. Neglected. Needy or lonely.
You put on good clothes and go to church. Listen to a sermon. You go to class and listen to a lecture, take notes. You attend a cultural event such as a concert.
You have something in common with all the other people at the concert. They are all listening to Shostakovich, are hoping to like it, and thought it worth their while to attend.
No one in the audience cares about you or your grievances.
You realize that the focus should be elsewhere. That many of the trivial annoyances don’t matter. Balance and perspective are important.
To be energized, to think energetically, to be creative requires an immersion in one’s own self and thoughts, and intense mental effort.
To sort things out requires calmness and a focusing of attention elsewhere.
Shostakovich composed preludes in the early 1950’s. People find them worth listening to decades later. I am in love with what Walt Whitman, talking about himself, called “my great thoughts, as I supposed them.” Other things also require attention. Everything is important, and most things are inconsequential. One needs to both hold on and be able to let go.
— Roger W. Smith
March 24, 2018
Roger – very nice self reflective piece. I like the personal thoughts and the ways you weaved them into the day and particularly the concert . Bravo. -Scott
Thanks, Scott. Much appreciated.
Fascinating to see the turns you took here. I enjoyed hearing how you responded differently to the different musicians. I know nothing about music, but have enjoyed going to our symphony concerts for years. But lately (and this is quite a tangent from your post) both my husband and I are annoyed by being forced to listen to so many contemporary pieces. Phoenix Symphony typically puts the signature piece in the 2nd “act.” Usually it is the whole show after the intermission. But before the intermission we get 2-3 other works. Sometimes there is a time-tested piece in there, but mainly they are lesser known and contemporary works. The lesser known are often lesser known for a reason. And the contemporary, like some contemporary pop music today, has no “tune,” if you know what I mean. There is nothing breathtaking or memorable. If I was to hear the same piece again, I wouldn’t recognize it anyway. And sometimes it positively grates on my nerves, where I have a physical reaction and want to run from the room. Although we have great seats every year, row 12 on the interior aisle, we probably won’t renew next year.
Really interesting input, Luanne. Thanks. We’re both “amateur listeners”! Doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, right?