Excuse me a moment

Bravo Krystian Zimerman, and thank you. Not just for the stand you took, but for taking a stand at all. (I have been reminded of John Tilbury’s related ‘Statement‘ of March 2003.)

Here are some enlightening comments posted to Mark Swed’s reports (1, 2) on the concert. Every one of them an example of the stupid, smug, complacent bullshit that poisons classical music, every one an urgent reason for Zimermans everywhere to raise their voices a little higher still. They include a range of nuanced opinion, including the simply insulting:

Go Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you! In June 2008 Zimerman said he would no longer perform in the USA, due to the Iraq War. Hopefully Comrade Zimerman will keep his promise this time.

What a jerk. Hates the USA, but is still here to take our money. Let’s be sure to leave him stay in his country. Please, let’s not invite him back.

The ignorant:

Mr Zimerman: you should play only, not speak. If you want to promote Poland play Chopin a.o. and shut up. Transfer your paycheck to the ‘poor’ in Poland. And stay out the Western Democracies for ever. You’re one the anti-zionists and anti-semitic Poles who are still around. Nothing have changed since 1940! You are not welcome in Amsterdam either.

The racist:

Go away little boy. Go back to Poland, land of the apparently true jokes. Then take the time you have by NOT coming here anymore and see if you can find a country where we took over. Maybe don’twhine to US when Russia cuts off your gas in the middle of winter, or when Iran lobs missled over your irrelivant little country. I’d rather keep our tax dollars and military here rather than subsidizing your welfare state. If you’re so upset with this country, donate all those nasty Dollars to charity. What a dope.

The mad:

There are known issues with the liberal mind, with its misfiring neurons and far-too-gapped synapses, that make it predictable that one would unwisely wish to intertwine politics with music. The stage should not be made into a “bully pulpit” in a similar fashion as the current dictatorship-on-the-rise has fashioned the government-media-complex.

It is curious, however, that Mr. Zimmerman focuses on Poland, which had a far more serious axe to grind, historically, with both Germany and the former USSR.
Ahhh … now I have it figured out. He was confused, and thought he was playing in the future United Soviet States of Amerika.

And the madder:

Mr. Zimerman,
The concert hall is unquestionably a temple of a Muse and indisputably not a podium for the expression of one’s political wrath. Your political statement delivered in the midst of your Sunday recital at the Disney Concert Hall has a value reciprocal to that of your intentions. You have offended admirers of your art, lovers of music, and Euterpe herself. Those who went to your recital did not know they would be witnessing an anti-American spectacle because they opted for an evening with Euterpe’s protégé and his heavenly piano playing rather than for a low level political rally. Your “thank you” words to those who support democracy were utterly misdirected – the audience was there for an entirely different reason; according to my newest information, there’s an infinitude more of democracy supporters outside the walls of that music hall than there were in. If you want to reach them, please announce that you would be coming with a speech on America’s wrongdoing and step up rather to the agora. Then, charge tens and hundreds of dollars for the privilege of listening to your oratory skills, and just before the climax of your verbal delivery, play quietly and out of tune some mediocre pastiche of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. Please do – the throng will be delighted! Now, you proclaimed this would be your last appearance in the United States, but I guess you have said that before, haven’t you? Aside from that, whom do you want to punish? Is it those thousands who never engage in politics but spend their last savings to listen to the great Zimerman play? That reminds me of one other instance of a refusal to play because of the political stand. Ignacy Paderewski vowed never to play at the Royal Prussian Court and he kept his word, but he happily performed for the people of Prussia. Well, that was though at the time when artists nobly refrained from pursuing their agendas at the events that had nothing to do with their art. I guess the clue is clear. And one more clue: Canossa is not that far from where you live, so just take the walk…

And this one (one of many, many like it) is so completely topsy-turvy it makes me shake with rage:

If it wasn’t for our military, Mr. Zimerman, your country would still be under the iron fist of the Soviet Union.

I’m not sure where to take all this, the issues vomited to the surface are too wide ranging. There’s something about music and politics, a lot about Poland – now and historically – a lot about US imperial policy in Europe – now and historically – and at the end a little piece of Polish music given an apparently extraordinary performance:

All along, Szymanowski’s Variations [on a Polish Folk Theme] had seemed an unusually lightweight end to a program that contained far-reaching Bach, Beethoven and (originally) Brahms. An early work by the only internationally famous Polish composer of the early 20th century, the pleasingly Chopinesque Variations were written in 1904 when the composer was 22 and demonstrate none of the erotic mysticism of his mid-career compositions or the folk-inspired nationalism that made him known as the Polish Bartók.

Yet to hear Zimerman play anything in Disney was amazing. His Bach was richly nuanced and beautiful although pushed in the final Capriccio. The trills in his Beethoven had a bell-like shimmer that sounded like a newly discovered acoustic phenomenon.

But in the Szymanowski, Zimerman’s meticulous tone, so luminous in the Introduction and theme, ultimately took second place to idealistic patriotic zeal. It’s a good thing that he can look after his own pianos, because this one will probably want some doctoring after the treatment he gave it. There was no encore. Pianist, audience and piano were all spent. The cheers were deafening.


14 thoughts on “Excuse me a moment

  1. Tim, here’s praying you forgive me for adding to the dissenting voices, but I think the issue here is not that Zimerman took a stand, but WHERE he chose to take it. You might be able to sit comfortably and listen to a great concert performance – for which you’ve paid good money, let’s not forget – right after the artist giving it has just berated your country, but I (and many others like me) would be more than a little distracted following such a personal political tirade.

    To all things there is a season …


  2. Hi Tim —

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with your basic point, I cringe a bit at the assumption that the sorts of people who append political comments at the end of online newspaper articles are representative of anything in particular — especially of those who know who Krystian Zimerman is or care what he has to say.

  3. That’s fair, Evan. As I say, I’m not quite sure how to parse all the conflicting issues here – some of which obviously act as internet fly paper.

    But: I do suspect that there is a continuum of feeling that extends from those who walked out of Zimerman’s concert, through the ‘music and politics don’t mix’ crowd to the ‘go home you ungrateful little man’. You can reconstruct this through the comments to Swed’s posts, and I think Zimerman was at least partially aware of this gumbo of political ideology, music, nationalism, foreign policy etc: it can’t be coincidence that he chose Szymanowski (rather than a more neutral point in his programme) as the moment at which to speak out.

    FK – I’d be distracted too; but I hope I would also step back for a moment to consider whether a) the criticism was valid and b) was important enough to be brought up in this way. Zimerman clearly thought it was on both counts, and respect for that decision would have to figure in my own reaction.

  4. I’m going to second both of your commenters, here.

    (1) Did Zimerman’s speech change any minds in the audience that night? I doubt it. This was probably an occasion for the self-satisfied liberals in the crowd to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side of the issue, and for the pro-torture crowd to stick their fingers in their ears and say, “Well what does HE know,” if not stomp out hollering obscenities. I’m not saying he isn’t right about the U.S.’s recent adventures overseas, and I’m not even saying he wouldn’t be right to boycott us; I’m just questioning whether this speech wasn’t a slightly rude, self-dramatizing and ineffective way to get his opinions across.

    (2) I’m guessing the overlap between visitors to the LA Times article and actual classical music lovers was extremely slim. Somehow I doubt that the crowd at FreeRepublic dot com knows Szymanowski from Shinola, and yet they’re suddenly concerned enough about the world of classical music to link to this story? Yeah, right. They’re just piling on to say “WE SAVED YR ASS IN WW2!!1”

    All in all, I’m not sure this is sparking a healthy dialogue, here—just throwing more red meat to the right wing.

  5. Interesting points, Tim and Dan.

    Certainly, there’s a need to speak out about the US and its ‘King of the World’ crusades of recent years. But is the concert platform the best place for it?

    A lot of people stayed after Zimerman’s speech. So presumably, they were too polite to walk out, agreed with what he said, or plain didn’t care – and I’ll admit there’s some crossover here. Those with manners and consciences were probably left squirming in their seats – perhaps for different (or the same) reasons. Not a nice way to spend an evening … let alone $50. And those who were indifferent? They probably had a good laugh about it in the bar afterwards (“Silly man”, “Eccentric foreigner”, etc). Or just went home, unchanged.


  6. I’m not sure what Zimerman said will have changed any minds. But it would have been even less likely to have done so if it had been confined to a stage-managed press conference before or after the concert.

    Neither of which diminishes the need for such things to be said.

    On a wider point, the relationship between classical music and politics is extremely thorny, and many people would prefer to use one to shut their ears to the other. I don’t agree with this stance – neither does history – and the fact that someone like Zimerman (rather than a more obviously politicised figure like, say, Lachenmann) is bringing these things to his music is to be applauded.

  7. To be perfectly honest, I probably would have been a little miffed at his statement. Whether I would have walked out it another story, and is something I’m not sure of, (probably would have had to be there to decide for myself.) But, really, I don’t pay money to hear a politics recital. I know that sounds a little meat-headed, but so be it. Yes, I know that music and politics are intertwined, and interconnected, and what-not. That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy and appreciate any political statements coming from musicians. And it definitely doesn’t mean I have to enjoy music made by any politicians, (Bill Clinton, anyone?)

    I’m a little more neutral when it comes to the politics of the issue, (the U.S. stances abroad are not the things bothering me right now, it’s the stances the government is taking in its own borders that are aggravating to me.) So, I wouldn’t have necessarily been bothered by his statements, per se. And, in all honesty, it’s not nearly as vitriolic or heated as the things that many of those living in the U.S. have been saying for the last 8 years, (especially those afflicted with the dreaded Bush Derangement Syndrome…) But, the venue and timing of the statements does put me off a bit.

  8. I was at the concert, and I personally didn’t find anything objectionable in his remarks, which were delivered calmly and without rancor. It seemed to me to be a sign of respect for his very enthusiastic audience that he wanted to explain why he wouldn’t be returning. He also didn’t make his grievance personal and didn’t say anything about having his pianos trashed by the TSA (I only learned about this appalling episode in the LA Times review).

    The number of soreheads in the audience was quite small — a dozen or so at best, I would think. There were rather more people who left after the Grazyna Bacewicz sonata and before his speech: probably a protest against horrible Modren Music (obviously not the usual LA Phil crowd).

    I had read an interview with him last year and knew about his views, so I was surprised to see him here at all. I suppose he was just honoring his contracts, which for someone of his stature are signed years in advance.

    Poland has also been the site of some of the CIA’s black prisons, for torturing so-called detainees beyond the reach of US laws. Yeah, if I were Zimerman I’d be pretty angry myself.

  9. I didn’t know about the piano story either; I think that’s justification enough to be exasperated with an entire country. But these incidents can seldom help but come across as pompous and ineffectual.

    My main problem with these types of debates comes down to your comment, “Neither of which diminishes the need for such things to be said.” Are you really supportive of Zimmerman for “taking a stand at all”, or just for taking a stand for something you agree with?

    Zimmerman said, “Get your hands off my country.” Would you have blogged the same way if it were a Chinese pianist scolding the audience for protesting about Tibet? A British musician complaining about immigrants?

  10. Ben, with respect you miss the point – Rob gets it. Why should anyone be happy that the US turns their country into a missile launching pad? We had the same problem for years in the UK and dissenters and protesters (Greenham Common) were dismissed as mad.

    Well thank God for those protesters like Zimerman, whose country has surely seen its fair share of bombs.

  11. Thanks, Rob, for the additional detail. People walking out of Bacewicz for being too modern, huh?

    Ben: tough questions. I’d say I’m supportive of him for taking a stand, but it also helps that it’s something I agree with. In the case of the Chinese or British examples I give, I wouldn’t write “Neither of which diminishes the need for such things to be said”, because I don’t think those are positions that need to be defended; but if I had called the performer in question a jerk it would have been for those views – I hope – not for the act of bringing politics to the stage. I’ll say again, based on the reports available, that the fact that the political side of Zimerman’s performance was in dialogue with the musical side counts very strongly in his favour.

    (Incidentally, I do think Zimerman’s “get your hands off my country” is of a very different sort to the Chinese and British examples you cite.)

  12. As much as I am bothered by “stupid, smug, complacent bullshit that poisons classical music” let me point out that many of these comments, especially the first few, don’t particularly strike me as coming from the classical music audience at all, but rather from the dedicated right wing troglodytes who dominate the comments sections of newspaper websites here in the US. These people do not go to concerts or listen to classical music (I’m surprised they can even operate computers) and don’t represent the audience, nor do they represent America. I’m sure they don’t read the classical music reviews but rather read the news aggregators that collect all the stories that are sure to offend them. Look up any article on any government activity, crime or political event (especially if there’s an immigrant or minority involved) and you’ll find the same kind of comments vomited forward there also. (And I’m sure I wouldn’t have to look hard to find it in the UK either)

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