Nothing quite grabs our attention like a gossipy account of a performance gone wrong. Writing about failure, about ill-advised risks, about unfortunate interruptions, disastrous transitions and car-crash endings is a surefire way to grab people’s attention. And appealing to our endless appetite to feel better about ourselves all-too-often means purging our insecurities by highlighting the humiliations of other people. This is one of the ways writing about musical performance is like writing about sex.
But there is another, more surprising way writing musical criticism is like writing about sex: it’s very, very hard to find the right words when things go incredibly well. Celebrating pre- and post-verbal pleasures with language usually backfires. What can you say to friends after a great concert or a great date, except for it was amazing? You can try to make your description about the mechanics of timing and speed or about the aesthetics of mood and the ordering of pleasures but, inevitably, words fail and you resort to saying it was just so-o-o good. How to find words for the so-o-o?
I won’t allow myself to begin this review of Sunday’s concert with pianists Richard Raymond and Sarah Oulousian by saying it was so-o-o good. But it’s tempting. Having gotten my introductory point out of the way, I expect you’ll get my drift when I say it’s been very, very tough to write about what I heard.
The two pianists, teacher and pupil, were giving the third of three Montreal Chamber Music Festival Mentor & Apprentice concerts held in the unusual space of the Ritz Carelton’s Oval Room. During the first of the series’ concerts it proved difficult to use the Oval Room’s space, but organizers have now done a great job creating an intensely casual, comfortable environment for an audience seated happily around tables, sipping coffee and munching on croissants.
14-year-old Oulousian opened the concert with meat-and-potatoes works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt before taking a break to let her mentor Raymond perform Beethoven’s early Sonata #9 in E Major. The two then teamed up for a 4-hand version of Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue.
Before the concert even started, I was already holding my breath. Once upon a time, I was 15 years old and (almost) all I wanted was to be a titanic pianist. I would wake up at 5:30 before school to practice, then rush home after school and practice to exhaustion before ripping through my homework before bed. I don’t regret those excessively diligent days, but I wouldn’t necessarily wish that routine on anybody else. It satisfied my fanaticism, but who wants to be a fanatic?
So when, in a pre-concert interview onstage, Master-of-ceremonies and Festival Director Denis Brott asked 14-year-old Sarah how much do you practice? I braced myself for the worst (the worst being all piano and no life).
Sarah: I get up early and practice before school.
Brott: How early?
Sarah: 6’oclock. Or maybe 6:30.
Brott: And then? After school?
Sarah: I take an hour or so to do my homework and then the rest of the night is all for piano.
Brott: So how much in total?
I think he was leading her towards an answer that would impress the audience. 5 hours a day! 6 – 7 hours each and every day! What an amazing, inspiring young lady!
The risk in celebrating young artistic talent is that we fetishize the wunderkind at the expense of everybody. The young prodigy is imagined living a life of sweet slavery, submitting to their predestined genius while the rest of us mere-mortal artists and enthusiasts sit around, waiting to be amazed by the nearly inhuman talents of the Select Few. This usually overstates the gifts of the wunderkind and glosses over the masses of artists who didn’t simply pop out of the womb as geniuses.
To my delight and great relief, Sarah estimated her daily practice to be two or two-and-a-half hours, a whole lot less than her daily sketch suggested. Which probably means that she has a knack for the useful, creative accounting of practice hours that is a crucial (and obviously undiscussed) tool in any young pianist’s psychological survival kit. It was the first wave of relief I felt watching Sarah on Sunday.
To my ears, Sarah Oulousian is not a freak wunderkind. She is a very, very talented young pianist with great rhythmic drive, capable of producing beautifully singing phrases and handling great big repertoire at a young age. The program she played would have pleased a University jury evaluating an artist ten years her senior and it seems obvious that she has a whole lot of fun onstage.
Her Bach Prelude & Fugue (G# minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier) was simple, singing and elegant and gave me my second, extremely short-lived wave of relief when she nearly (no doubt unnoticeably to people who haven’t played the piece) lost, then found herself in the closing moments of the Fugue. Her voicing was well thought-out and she didn’t resort to any pedal-cheating in her smooth legato interpretation of the fugue’s subject. There was some overly melodic playing in the rhythmically charged, virtuosic passages from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #12, but even the way she cheated time showed off great musical instincts.
The best bits for me were her Beethoven (the 1st movement of Op. 90) and Chopin (the Op. 25 #12 C-minor étude). The Chopin can sound mechanical and repetitive but her version was powerful, singing and rich and, despite wrestling with a mediocre piano, it sounded mostly effortless. In the Beethoven her rhythmic drive was dynamite and the fiendishly difficult left-hand passages were too perfect not to mention.
The last and most satisfying wave of relief this concert brought me grew over the course of the event concert as I observed Sarah’s mentor, Richard Raymond. He watched her offstage (appearing fashionably late), he spoke about her onstage (nonchalantly) and he played at her side in the Gershwin (not perfectly together). Raymond is a fantastic artist and has no need to boost his ego by living through his fiercely talented young student. This is as unscientific as a judgement can be, but in the way he watched, talked about and played with Oulousian, I never got the sense that he was worked up about the occasion, worried about how she might sound, or eager to take credit for what she was doing. All of this, in my view, is just what the doctor ordered for the wellbeing of a gifted young pianist.
One day, in a fit of despair over what I felt to be problems with the way I learned pieces, I asked my piano mentor: of all the students you’ve worked with, whose method for learning was the best? The teacher, Marc Durand, had worked with Louie Lortie, Marc-André Hamelin and David Jalbert, to drop only a few names that piano nerds will recognize. Marc thought for a while before speaking of Louie’s outrageous ability to learn entire pieces on a plane ride. Then he mentioned Jean Saulnier’s fantastically thorough, 3-phased approach to each piece (Jean is now a highly sought-after professor at Université de Montréal). But in the end, Marc told me “the best out of all of them was Richard Raymond. Richard would take a piece and learn it one measure at a time, each measure crystallized by the time he was through with it. It was as if the interpretation was already there, waiting for him.”
I have no idea if Raymond still works this way, or how much exaggeration and embellishment Marc’s story involved. But if, for him, working at the piano involves discovering something “already there”, and if the “already there” was something like what we heard on Sunday, then what a rich, irresistible mining of beauty it must be to sit at the instrument and “work” in his skin.
I overdosed on Beethoven’s Sonatas about 10 years ago. Raymond wasn’t even playing one that I particularly liked. Yet everything about his performance of the E major Opus 9 sonata made my body hum with pleasure: The strangely singing and serious opening of the first movement (how did he make that weird, Brahmsian heaviness work so well?). The way the wild rumblings of Romanticism in the development felt both fully improvisational (phrases as ideas starting and stopping on a dime) and well thought out and controlled. The scales which, throughout the first and third movements, sounded so clear and rich with shaping so beautiful I wanted to eat them. I realize that this is exactly the kind of ridiculous-sounding celebration of music through language that I think, basically, always fails. But let me take one more crack at it.
Remember, if you can, what it was like to be tickled as a child. Now imagine a Tickling Grandmaster, steeped in the various arts and methods of tickling, reminding you of that pleasure as an adult. Somehow, when the Tickling Grandmaster deploys tickling skills, it never gets boring but also never goes beyond the pleasure threshold (the point at which the experience degenerates into crying or peeing or both). Now Imagine this Tickling Grandmaster identifying a previously unknown ticklish area – say on and around your forehead – then finding a number different ways, with different intensities, to tickle you there. Not only have you discovered a new zone of bodily pleasure, you’ve also been shown multiple paths the pleasure can take and make.
There was a moment in the second movement when Raymond acted as Tickling Grandmaster. Playing the simple, plaintive theme from the sonata’s second movement, a theme I had heard not dozens but hundreds of times, he made me gasp and smile and laugh with each successive repetition of the theme. The last repetition was played with a haunting, ghostlike sound (no affect, no inflections, no definition to the barely audible tune, which was more a memory than a statement). He had taken all of the character out of the sound and it had a tremendous effect. The Tickling Grandmaster only had to look at me for me to feel the laughter waiting in my body.
The crowd-pleasing main event of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue felt like an encore. Raymond handled the lower register and Oulousian took care of the flashier parts up top on the same instrument. The arrangement is awkward and there were plenty of clunky moments of missed synchronization. But both pianists were so comfortable with the idiom that I was too charmed by the moments when one of them solo-d to be distracted by moments of poor coordination. Who cares if people aren’t dancing perfectly in sync if they both look great doing what they’re doing?
There’s one more anecdote that came back to me after hearing Sunday’s concert: when I was 16, a well-respected professor from a well-respected university heard me perform and judged my playing a few times during a competitive music festival. The man, who barely knew me, wrote in his final assessment of the week “You must become an artist. Your talent demands it.” It was flattering but it was also strangely suffocating. Did what I wanted matter at all?
I assume that Sarah has no shortage of wise people guiding her. Still, if there is such a thing as progress in the provision of artistic advice, I hope that I can improve upon the advice given to me twenty years ago:
Become an artist Sarah, if you like. Your talent allows it.
But it’s the if you like part, not the become an artist part, that is potentially the most tricky bit.
Here’s to teachers who don’t need to live through their students’ success, to prodigies of potential fudging the numbers when it comes to practice time, and to being tickled in ways that push the limits of language. It was Sunday morning and I could have slept in. I’m glad I didn’t.
This concert was part of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. Click HERE for more info on festival events.