Diary of a Mad Composer
February 9: I’m at Carnegie Hall to review a recital by pianist Denis Matsuev. Not sure what to expect, haven’t heard him play in years and my only experience with him has been in Rachmaninoff piano concertos, Matsuev soloing in front of orchestras conducted by Valery Gergiev. So I know him as being loud and fast in music that rarely appeals to me, because despite the good qualities locked within the notes, R’s public appeal has been the idea that loud and fast means IMPORTANT and DEEP and PASSIONATE and ARTISTIC—that trite movie about David Helfgott fucked with a lot of minds, making people think that somehow this music is dangerous to the psyche and soul, and therefore mystically esoteric in a way that separates art from what it really is and from actual human experience.
I see a colleague of mine there, a pianist, another welcome familiar face after the long seclusion of both artists and critics. He shares the same misgivings about Matsuev. But we’re here to work, and to be open-minded listeners, and I always try to give everything and everyone a chance. Matsuev is playing Rachmaninoff tonight, Piano Sonata No. 2, but also Beethoven, so let’s see if the showman can do anything with humanism.
February 22: Back at Carnegie, this time in the basement in Zankel Hall, and this time it’s pianist Vikingur Ólafsson, and I’m excited to see him. His records have such beautiful playing and thinking, he lays the riches of Mozart, Debussy, and Glass out there for you to hear and choose from. See my colleague again—we were both surprised and impressed with Matsuev. There were moments of all flash and power, especially the encores, but that stuff is supposed to please the crowd.
But his playing was thoughtful and mature. No doubt he has great hands, but the Beethoven sonatas were about ideas and impressions, about hearing something and responding that it was a beautiful thing from the composer that musician and audience can share, rather than a vehicle to show how amazing you are at the keyboard. Nice to have something new and surprising come out of old expectations. I’m scheduled to see him again on Friday, again playing a Rachmaninoff concerto (No. 2) with Gergiev conducting the visiting Vienna Philharmonic. A week ago, this was just another assignment, now I’m genuinely curious about what I might hear.
February 25: Russia invaded Ukraine yesterday. I’m at Carnegie Hall, and the Vienna Phil is here to play, but no Matsuev nor Gergiev. They were disinvited by both Carnegie and the Vienna Phil musicians and have been replaced by pianist Seong-Jin Cho and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. This is all about Russia—especially Vladimir Putin, whom the two musicians vocally support and promote—and Ukraine, and it’s the right thing to do.
At Zankel Tuesday, I was talking with my colleague about classical music in society. As a cultural commodity, classical is cloistered from the general public, and my colleague has the old school view that is how it should be, that it’s about preserving and protecting a high and somewhat esoteric art. That’s understandable and valid, and certainly classical music is precarious and is never going to be popular. But I look at it economically and historically: cloistering means limiting economic expansion, keeping out occasional new audiences, and that’s unwise as they are the means of future survival; and historically the music has always been a part of society and events, even if it’s just one small corner in the world—the secret police spied on Beethoven for his politics, after all.
And now here we are, confronted again by actual history. And classical music is not only in that history, but confronting it. I say that’s a good thing.
The unsatisfying part of this is that Matsuev, Gergiev, Anna Netrebko (who has been disinvited by the Met Opera) have never faced this pushback from institutions in the past, even as it’s been common to have picketers and leafleteers outside their appearances, and even heckling inside. This is something I’ve witnessed at Carnegie a few times, and at the Met.
Putin has made it dangerous to be an LGBTQ person in Russia, for no other reason than his reactionary, petty, and insecure masculinity. Those laws are many years old now, and while private citizens in the West have objected, these artists have been engaged again and again. But in the ruling class view, what happens inside a relatively advanced country (especially one with nuclear weapons) may be unpleasant but what are you going to do? And there’s a gala to attend. There is a broad line between the suffering of unknown individuals far away and one’s own experiences and outlook.
But Putin, in a way that seems absolutely bumbling and is going to kill many thousands of people, has breached that line. I think the instinctual reaction of classical music is that he has attacked Western civilization, and by proxy I think that’s right. Ukraine is an open society in the sense that while it still has problems, like the rest of the world, Ukrainians get to decide how they want to be governed. It should go without saying that Ukraine has chosen, since 2014, to be Ukrainian. Beyond Putin’s preposterous and genocidal rhetoric is the rank smell of his fear that there might be a society on his border that Russians see as an alternative to revanchist imperialism and violent domination.
I think the visceral abhorrence to the Russian invasion has to do with seeing the idea of an open society attacked by a near-fascist state. Yes, the fascists have their shitty music, but what classical music, as a composer-driven form, is based on is the idea that one can determine the structure and form of one’s own life. A few years ago, Carnegie, the Met, and other institutions didn’t care enough about the limits on Russian LGBTQ people forming their own lives to make any kind of hard choice, and now things have come precipitously, existentially to the borders of the West’s most prominent values.
Now it’s too close, and now they’ve done something. Let’s hope it’s not too late.