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In my seven decades — half of them spent as an art critic — I have been to too many art galleries and museums to be able to count the shows I have seen. Nor can I count the concerts, recitals, theater productions I’ve seen or books I’ve read. Most of them I’ve enjoyed, but few were so memorable that I still have in my nostrils the aroma they gave off. 

This is not to disparage most of the others. I’ve eaten too many restaurant meals to count. Most of them I enjoyed. They did what was asked of them. But can I recount a ribeye I once had in Bakersfield? No. That would be silly. 

But there are meals and concerts that stick, art exhibits that did more than give an hour’s pleasure, concerts that changed my way of thinking about the world. 

And let’s be honest, one is willing to pay the ticket price for a lot of minor pleasure in the expectant hope that this next one will be a world-changer. The odds are against it, but we persist. Every once in a while, we are gobsmacked, and know why it has been worthwhile to sit through a hundred Beethoven Fifths to get to this one that goes beyond mere pleasure to transcendence. 

We live for those moments; they make life worth living. 

In a recent blog, I recounted my earliest such encounters, with Eugene O’Neill at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., when I was in high school. With J.M.W. Turner at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a few years later. With Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the same year. These all set my life on a course to spend it with art and music. These all proved to my adolescent heart and mind that there was something more real, more important, than the suburban life I was being brought up in. 

But the immersion didn’t end there. In subsequent years, there were many exhibits and concerts that stand out. That became such an engrained part of my life and world view, that it is as if I was still standing in front of those paintings, or sitting in the concert hall, hearing those notes. 

Let’s just take three piano recitals as examples. In 1991, I heard Maurizio Pollini at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. In the first half of the recital, he played all of Chopin’s Preludes. In the second half, he played the Berg sonata and Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. All that was great. But he finished with the Stravinsky Three Scenes from Petrushka, one of the most difficult bravura piano pieces ever written. Pollini tore through it like a demon, but made every note musical. It blew me away. (The recital was notable for its intermission, too. The doors to the hall were locked and for nearly an hour, we could hear the piano being re-tuned behind those doors. Apparently Maestro Pollini was not satisfied with the instrument. We were kept waiting in the lobby until he gave his approval to the tuning). 

In 2008, I heard Jeremy Denk at Zankel Hall in New York, the recital hall that is part of Carnegie Hall, play the single most daunting program I could imagine, with Charles Ives knucklebusting Concord Sonata in the first half, and Beethoven’s mind-busting Hammerklavier Sonata in the second. I could only think of John Lennon’s immortal line “I got blisters on me fingers.” For an encore, he reprised the Hawthorne movement of the Concord. Very like running a 200-meter directly after running a marathon. 

I’ve heard Denk several times since then, and each time, his playing was, if not so Olympian, certainly significantly memorable. He proved to me, for instance, that the etudes of Gyorgy Ligeti are great music. And that Beethoven’s Eroica Variations are actually comic. 

Then, in 2011, I heard Andre Watts play the Liszt B-minor sonata in Scottsdale, Ariz., on an all-Liszt program. I had the perfect seat to see his fingers spin over the keys, and learned a great deal about the disposition of Liszt’s voicings by being able to see Watt’s fingers. His playing was ethereal. Liszt was a Watts specialty. 

But it wasn’t only music. After my initial infatuation with O’Neill in high school, I had seen too many mediocre live theater productions, and had come greatly to prefer movies. Theater seemed too artificial, too, well, “theatrical” for my tastes. But then, in 1993, I saw the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America — both parts on successive days — and saw what live theater can do that nothing else can. It was one of the seminal experiences of my life. 

(It was also ruined for me most other theater, because so seldom is it ever this overwhelmingly powerful. But I have seen other great theater since then. Angels is not sui generis. I have seen Angels three more times, once in its road production —not all that good — once in a production by Actors Theatre in Phoenix, which was nearly as good as the New York production, and finally, in its Mike Nichols filmed version, which is very different from the stage version. It is a movie, not theater. Very good, but still, not the live experience on stage. The same difference between seeing the movie Amadeus and the stage version. Movie is good; live is great.)

I got to travel for my newspaper, and was able to review many major art shows around the country. They have been some of the most eye-opening and mind-expanding things I’ve done. 

In 1994, I saw John James Audubon: The Birds of America at the Art Institute in Chicago. It featured 90 of the original paintings used for the engravings published in his books. The originals persuaded me that Audubon might be considered America’s greatest artist. (You can read a version of my newspaper review here.)

In 1996, I visited Philadelphia for the big Cezanne show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One hundred oil paintings, 35 watercolors and 35 drawings from public and private collections. It was an overwhelming experience. I never knew there were this many distinct greens, blues, blue-greens, and greenish blues. And when you swipe a bit of vermilion against them, the whole thing glows like neon. Seeing Cezannes live is a very different thing from seeing them reproduced in books. 

In 1999, I got to see the great Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which gave me the rare chance to see his Blue Poles, which is normally hidden away in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. 

That same year, there was a great Van Gogh show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Like having the chance to see Pollock’s Blue Poles, I got to see Vincent’s iconic Wheatfield with Crows. The show as a whole was the best introduction to the artist’s growth from a clumsy, almost talentless neophyte to one of the world’s greatest painters. He wasn’t always Van Gogh, but when he became himself — the very definition of transcendence. 

I’ve been to Chartres Cathedral four times, and each time was overwhelming. I’ve now been to most of the great churches of northern France. The single most beautiful manmade thing I have ever seen is the north rose window at Chartres. I have sat transfixed in the south part of the crossing, staring back to the north, in total, for hours. It is a meditation or very like a prayer, if such can be said for a complete atheist. 

Overall, it is music that has most provided me with this feeling: Of taking me out of myself and letting my mind expand to a size larger than mere me-ness. Of course, most of the hundreds of concerts I have attended have only provided pleasure and entertainment. But there are those that do more. I thirst for those. 

In 1994, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play the Strauss Don Juan and I felt music not just through my ears, but through my whole body and being. 

I’ve heard Gustavo Dudamel twice live. Once playing the Mahler First with the LA Phil, shortly after his appointment as music director. But before that, in New York with the Israel Philharmonic, playing the Tchaikovsky Fourth. That was in 2008; the Israel Phil was then an orchestra made up of older, formerly Eastern European men — bald-headed old pros who could give a polished performance under any conductor. But they played with the enthusiasm of little boys, even smiling at this bit or that as they produced the sound. After the performance, Dudamel, instead of turning and bowing to absorb the adulation of the audience, immediately danced up into the orchestra and jumped up and down with the musicians, shaking hands and pointing out soloists. I’ve never seen such a powerful effect a conductor has had on a group of musicians. They seemed to love him back. 

There have been other concerts: In 2008, there was Ozvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw; in the same year, there was Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2009, there was Nixon in China with Robert Orth in the title role. In 2010, Steven Moeckel played the Beethoven violin concerto with the Phoenix Symphony at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. I have never heard a better, more moving and detailed performance of the concerto. At least not live. 

Sometimes, it is only a single work on a program. I’ve heard Itzhak Perlman I don’t know how many times. He’s a miracle; but he isn’t always completely engaged. He can give a creditable performance even half asleep — and he has been known to. But then he will redeem himself. In 2008, he gave a performance in Scottsdale. He ended the recital with his usual encore pieces and tired jokes. The same jokes over and over each concert. Perlman can be quite tiresome. And he opened with a Bach sonata, well played but nothing special. Then, as I wrote in my review:

“But then, with the Richard Strauss violin sonata, the sun shone through and the angels sang. It’s not for nothing that Perlman is a superstar. He gave us a version of the music no one else could give. Rich as butter, emotionally complex and powerful, he persuaded us that the Strauss sonata is a major piece of music, rather than B-list work by an A-list composer, which is how it’s usually ranked.

“From the opening notes the music dripped with personality, as Perlman pushed or dragged the notes just enough to create the kind of perfect phrasing that makes the music speak directly to your innards.”

It is for moments like that for which we will put up with so much less for so long. 

There are two other moments I would like to mention. 

The first is a concert with pianist Lang Lang. He has a bad reputation with some critics for histrionics on stage — rocking and eye-rolling — and he has on occasions played loud and fast, but without much impact, for which he has gotten the nickname “Bang Bang.” But he can also play the way he did in the slow movement of the Chopin concerto, on Oct. 24, 2008 (2008 was a very good year for me). As I wrote in the review:

“At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. ‘I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.’

“That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto Sunday with the Phoenix Symphony. He lingered over it, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.

“Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.

“It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.”

My best moments in the concert hall has been when time completely stops and I get a glimpse of eternity — not eternity as an infinite number of moments end-to-end, but a eternity as utter timelessness. Time ceases to exist. 

That has happened each time I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites. I’ve heard him several times, including doing all six in a single concert. 

“Ma concluded with the sixth suite, as intense as an Aeschylan tragedy, with climaxes at the slow allemande and the even slower, deeper, more intense sarabande. Blood almost ceased moving in my veins and only started pulsing once more with the gavotte that followed, as the relief from tragedy, and a reawakening to the life of the body.

“This kind of music is why we listen to classical music: It isn’t enjoyment we are after but solace, reflection, a reconnection with the more important parts of ourselves. It brings us to the place where the deepest thought and the most profound emotion cannot be told apart; they are the same thing. It is proof that art is not merely entertainment, but food for our deepest hunger.”

There are many more such moments over the years, but I can’t mention them all. This is already too long. But, my life has been nurtured by such moments and experiences. They have made me who I am. 

It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer. 

This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward. 

I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back. 

When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.” 

Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”

Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly. 

When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty. 

I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading. 

And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire? 

Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously? 

And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful. 

His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently. 

So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again? 

I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous. 

In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune. 

The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group. 

Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times. 

The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano. 

But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am. 

This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste. 

And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.” 

In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin. 

You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy. 

Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him. 

So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us. 

The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score. 

But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them. 

I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it. 

The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time. 

We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)

Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation. 

And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off. 

I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm? 

I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer. 

In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

I grew up with H.W. Janson’s History of Art, first in art history class in college, and later, when I used it as a text when I taught art history. When I first owned a copy, it had only a few color plates, and later editions turned all-color, also adding some female artists and a bit of non-Western art in response to complaints it was too white-male-ish. It was. 

But that is not my point here. Rather it is that so many of us, including me, both as student and as teacher, know art primarily through reproduction. Either pictures in a book or slides projected in class — and now as digital images on computer screens. 

So, although I know Las Meninas, Rembrandt’s Danaë, or Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, I’ve never actually seen them. Not in person. 

(Judging from this photo, it’s possible even to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still not see Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. How many times have you seen museum visitors staring at the blue light of their cellphone instead of at the work on the walls?)

As a result, we are so much more art literate — or at least image literate — than was possible a hundred years ago, or two hundred years  when privileged young men would take the Grand Tour through Italy and the Continent to study the great masterpieces in museums and churches, and come home and write encomia on the glories they had seen. 

But we are also fooled into believing that we have seen these famous paintings by encountering them on a page. Learning their titles to recognize them on a test makes your Janson into a high-culture Peterson Guide. Name the birds, name the paintings. 

The real thing is quite a different experience. 

Take for a single example Théodore Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, with its careful triangular composition of decomposing bodies and starving survivors. In class, we study the iconography of the painting, but can have little concept of the impact of seeing the original, which is frankly, the size of a barn. 

It hangs in the Louvre and it isn’t just the immensity of the thing that cannot be felt in a picture book, but the shear weight of canvas and paint which sags ever so slightly under its own mass. It isn’t a perfectly flat canvas: You have to accept it as an object in its own right, not merely an image. 

Quite the opposite confronts anyone who can make it to the front of the throng perpetually standing in front of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, like groupies vying for the front row at a rock concert. “It’s so much smaller than I thought,” is the most frequent response. 

And it isn’t just size that matters. How many have seen Vincent Van Gogh’s Crows in a Wheatfield either in an art book or as the dramatic climax of the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life? How many have seen the actual painting? 

If you have been so lucky, you will know not only the size of the canvas, but also the almost sculptural surface of it, daubed with palette knife and oils. Van Gogh’s paintings are again, not merely images, but objects in their own right. 

In addition, the colors of printer’s inks are not the colors of the oil paint. You can never get quite the arsenic green that makes up the background of one of his self-portraits. Not in ink, and not in pixels. Just Google one of the paintings and look at the multiple versions posted online and notice how much color and contrast vary. 

What you are left with is the iconography. A real appreciation of the art is always more than iconography. Iconography is intellectual — you can describe it in words. This is the Virgin Mary, or that is the Battle of Waterloo. But identifying the subject is not seeing the painting. A painting is also a sense experience and looking at an actual painting, in museum or gallery, gives you so much more than its content. 

The same is true of the other arts. I have (I blush when I say it) thousands of CDs of music and can identify compositions — as if it were a contest — in a few notes, a classical music Name That Tune. (I remember astonishing my brother-in-law by spotting the Bartok Fifth Quartet in three notes — and they are all the same note. But boy, are they distinctive.) 

Denk and Brahms

But knowing the tunes is not the same experience as hearing the music played by Yo-Yo Ma live, or the Guarneri Quartet, or Jeremy Denk. This was brought home to me fundamentally (i.e., through my fundament) when I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Wolfgang Sawallisch play Strauss’s Don Juan and the famous horn call was broadcast to the hall by eight French horns in unison. The effect cannot be captured by the best recording and the most audiophile equipment. You have to hear it live. The hall is live with the music. 

Certainly not every performance is so transcendent. Often you really do only get the tunes, and sometimes, that is enough for a pleasant evening. But I can honestly say that in a lifetime of concert-going, I have heard scores, maybe a hundred concerts where the music became a living thing on the stage and transported me to places no other art form can take me. 

The same for ballet and dance. I have never seen on film or video a dance performance that didn’t seem a pale reflection of what I see live on stage. Even the great Balanchine, when asked to record some of his most famous choreographies, had to redo them slightly to make them camera-friendly. Even then, they don’t come close to seeing Apollo live, or The Prodigal Son, or Rubies. Dance has to be seen live, in three dimensions, palpable and present. 

And I have seen stage plays recorded for TV. Stage acting seems so artificial when replayed on tape. Stage acting is not naturalistic acting: It is projecting the meaning to the back rows. Seen a stage production on the screen makes you long for a cinematic version. But a great performance of a great play seen live will disabuse you of any notion that live theater is lesser than film. 

I have seen Tony Kushner’s Angels in America four times complete, first in the original Broadway production, then in the roadshow version, then is a locally produced performance by the late lamented Actors Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz., and finally in the filmed version with Al Pacino. As good as that last was — and it is worth seeing if you haven’t seen it on stage yet — it pales in comparison with the original. Indeed, the original is what finally persuaded me that live theater offers something nothing else can. It is live. You can sometimes feel the pulse of the actors on stage, their sweat, their muscles flexing like dancers’. 

I pity anyone who has only seen dinner theater or a mediocre student performance, thinking that is what theater is about. Seeing a great production is life changing. 

Yet, so much of our lives now is virtual, and we hardly mind the difference. We even watch movies on our cell phones, which only puts me in mind of when I was a boy, watching great movies on a 12-inch TV, in black and white, all fuzzy in picture and tinny in sound, and thinking I was “seeing” the film. In those pre-HD days, we used to say television was radio with pictures. You could take in a program while doing chores, as long as you could hear the dialog, you could follow the plot. Movies are meant to be seen, the visual details are meant to contribute the the experience. They cannot on a cellphone. We are back to square one. 


I remember visiting the Virginia Beach Marine Science Center aquarium and enjoying the otters playing behind a great picture window. A slew of schoolkids came in on a bus tour and they immediately swarmed — not to the window to watch the otters — but to the video display showing live footage from the very tank they could look at in front of them. They chose, to a child, to look at the video instead. It was seriously depressing. 

And it is what I think of when I reopen my worn copy of Janson and look at the reproduction of the Disembarkation of Marie De Medici at Marseilles by Peter Paul Rubens, tiny on the page, and think of the room in which it sits at the Louvre. The painting is more than 12 feet tall and surrounded by 23 other giant paintings in a room dedicated to the series. The effect is quite overwhelming. On the page, it is a confused clump of busy mythology; on the wall, it will blow you away. 

I feel sorry of any poor student taking an art history class who thinks they have encountered the world’s great art, when all they have seen is ghosts of the living beings. 

Click on any image to enlarge

 

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The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.