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Martha Argerich was slated to perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 at Carnegie Hall on April 8, 2002. That is, until some two weeks before the concert. Word got out that Martha had changed her mind: she was going to play the Schumann A minor Piano Concerto instead.
Well, no matter. Martha could play the “Happy Birthday” song, the crowds would still show up just for the chance to be in her rarefied presence.
Martha stands apart today as one of the last truly great pianists of our time—a towering figure despite her petite frame—in the tradition of Vladimir Horowitz, and I say this without the least hyperbole.
On that crisp, cool Monday evening, the concert was, as usual, a sold-out affair. The visiting artists would be coming in fresh from a couple of winning performances just days before at Philadelphia’s spanking new Verizon Hall, a few hours’ drive from Manhattan. Half past seven, and a messy throng began to gather outside Carnegie’s main entrance on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. A few young people could be spotted about holding up hastily scribbled signs saying things like, "I NEED 1 TICKET FOR TONIGHT’S CONCERT." I wanted to tell them that I wished I had a ticket or two to spare. I sympathized with anyone desperately wanting to see Martha in concert, so infrequent were her live appearances in town—or anywhere in the USA, for that matter.
Once the doors were unlocked, it wouldn’t take long for the Isaac Stern Auditorium to be packed to the rafters with humanity. From where we sat in a box left of stage we could see that every last red balcony seat had been taken. Onstage, meanwhile, the hundred-some members of the visiting Philadelphia Orchestra were busily creating an interesting cacophony from the dissonance of instruments being tuned and played at will, sounds that mixed with the general din and murmur of concertgoers filtering into the auditorium, searching for their assigned places, getting cozy in their seats, flipping through the printed program, chit-chatting with sundry kith, kin and fellow fans, some blasé about the whole thing, others positively agog with excitement.
The program begins.
At last the noise died down. The audience now settled in their seats, the concertmaster emerged, to much expectant clapping. A brief silence. Then the maestro himself, Charles Dutoit, made his entrance. He strode to the podium where he turned to acknowledge the audience’s applause with a few bows. Turning back to the orchestra, he lost little time in launching into the rousing and jubilant opening to Hector Berlioz’s Rob Roy Overture.
Although unfamiliar with the work, I could clearly hear the light yet invigorating sound of Berlioz. (His ubiquitous Symphonie Fantastique was my sole pathetic claim to knowledge of him.) While this rendering of the Rob Roy Overture didn’t nudge me any closer to Berlioz fandom, neither did it swell my indifference to his music. Okay, so I do admit to watching the clock through this number, barely able to sit still at all. I’m sure many others were equally guilty! “Next, please!” would plague my wicked thoughts!
The evening’s main attraction.
When Mr. Dutoit and company finally concluded the Berlioz, hushed audience noises returned as anticipation hung thickly in the air. Then came the sound of scraping chairs, as the string section cleared a large area within their midst. The conductor’s podium was moved a little way upstage. The majestic behemoth--the ebony (or was it mahogany?) Steinway concert grand--was then wheeled onto center stage, and its companion leather-upholstered piano bench was brought up and set down firmly in its rightful place.
Within a seemingly eternal and highly charged minute, the reluctant star pianist herself would emerge at last from stage right, a picture of modest simplicity with her navy blue-and-white printed dress and heels, her dark, thick, waist-length mane showing elegant streaks of gray at the temples. It was hard to believe I was actually there, sitting within fifty feet of this mythical genius—I, the beau and some two thousand other mortals, that is. Despite having yet to play a single note, the applause that greeted her entrance grew deafening in no time. There was a sense of great relief mixed with tremendous excitement at her mere presence tonight. It’s an accepted truism that until Martha is actually at the piano onstage with hands on the keyboard, one can never be truly sure if she’ll perform that night.
Martha then seated herself, making a few adjustments to the bench. Mr. Dutoit turned and leaned in her direction, awaiting her cue. A quick sign from the conductor prompted the concerto’s first bracing notes from the orchestra, then the impelling cascade of chords from the piano. The opening tension finally broken, the music now relaxed, transitioning smoothly to the winds’ melodic passages, echoed on the piano with a quiet intensity by Martha.
The first movement gleamed like cool but brilliant moonlight. Sections heaving with a barely reined-in passion alternated with calmer and more soothing passages. The thoughtful and questioning second movement, which seemed a tad brief, offered a chance to catch one’s breath. Finally closing the concerto was the untamed and joyous third movement, which rushed in with little warning. Martha impressed mightily with her effortless, unstoppable melodic runs and high-energy, bravura playing.
While the Schumann is practically a staple in the Argerich repertoire and is one of the "easier" works, hearing her play it always brings out a fresh nuance to the piece. Tonight Martha made the lovely concerto come to life once more.
Martha showed a graceful poise and a calm settledness in her performance this evening. That famous impetuosity was held in check, yet none of that intuitive spontaneity so typical of her genius was lost. Her hands moved with such speed across the keys, they would occasionally become mere blurs. During the breaks offered by the orchestra’s tuttis, Martha rested her hands in her lap, at times swaying ever so slightly to the rhythm of the piece. It was lovely to see her thus, letting herself be carried away by the mood of the moment without a hint of self-consciousness.
For his part, Mr. Dutoit would almost be leaping off the podium during the work’s more vigorous passages, his arms scooping and slashing mightily through the air as if to draw out the hidden rapturous sounds from the orchestra. It was a sight greatly amusing to behold. Mr. Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra were equal to the Herculean task of keeping up with Martha’s devilish tempos and rhythms. Soloist and orchestra were well-matched that evening, with the delicate interweaving of piano and orchestra accomplished swimmingly.
Martha and the willingly captive and captivated audience.
The Schumann now over, the Carnegie crowd still refused to let go of Martha so soon. In what I now know to be customary in her concerts, thunderous applause, "bravos" and whistles from the audience would continue uninterrupted for several minutes. Most were already on their feet, as if to convince the pianist of their earnestness. If my count was right, Martha had to take some six curtain calls. With genuine modesty bordering on shyness, she acknowledged the applause, seeming incredulous at the crowd’s uninhibited and unbridled adulation. At the final curtain call, she turned to the concertmaster, and with imploring looks, begged him to leave the stage with her.
Well, Mr. Concertmaster obliged. And—that—was—it. Nope, sorry. No encores tonight from Martha. I did wonder if she felt a bit under the weather, as she could be seen to dab at her nose with a tissue as she made her way offstage.
During the intermission, I couldn’t help thinking: the evening’s high point has now passed. How can the Philadelphia Orchestra possibly top Martha’s show? For people came tonight to at least see Martha, if not only Martha—such is the fanatical fervor of much of her following. To be sure, anything that came after her could only be anticlimactic, at best.
As it turned out, I need not have worried too much.
Bravos for Dutoit and The Philadelphia Orchestra.
After the break, a few empty seats would show up where none were before. Most of the audience members did dutifully return to their places, however. And I’m happy to report that Mr. Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra couldn’t have done a better job with the final piece, Igor Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka.
Pétrouchka was written for a ballet whose tale centers on the puppet with the eponymous name. The puppet comes to life to dance and also irritate everyone he meets. He eventually causes his own demise, but the tale ends with his resurrection. The orchestration is rather unusual because it calls for two to four instrumentalists in most of the non-string sections. The final ensemble would consist of percussion (triangle, cymbal, xylophone, timpani, other drums), brass (with the silvery trumpets and lowing trombones played with and without mutes, and that hefty solo tuba having a few select moments to itself), winds (the small but feisty piccolo playing a few significant bars, besides the rest of the woodwind gang of flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons), piano and celesta (four hands playing on the latter), and two harps (never seen that before!). As played, the various sections alternated for their moment in the musical spotlight.
Much to my surprise, the final piece would turn out to be witty, humorous and all-around fun. Mr. Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra had succeeded in assuaging the crowd’s somewhat tempered disappointment at Martha’s encore-less exit. Although Stravinsky has never ranked up there on my list with Bach and Beethoven, in the end Pétrouchka pleased me very much, indeed. Charles Dutoit and the Philly Orchestra had left the audience with a buoyant feeling at the concert’s conclusion, a fitting end to a very special evening of wonderful music.
‘Twas unforgettable, how else to describe it? Yet I still hold out hope that one day Martha will actually deign to include a bit of JS Bach or the Rachmaninoff Third piano concerto or any Prokofiev piano concerto in one of her US concerts.
Well, anyone interested should try and catch Martha Argerich in one of her live appearances, as such events have become all-too-rare anymore. It’s a singular experience worth the time, effort and expense, at least once in your lifetime. Trouble is that afterwards, you may find yourself yielding to that irresistible pull of arguably the greatest living pianist today, wanting to relive that magical atmosphere evoked only by a live performance. And can that really be a bad thing?
+ Concert information:
Martha lives in Brussels, and appears mostly in Europe, with additional tours in the US, Japan and her native country of Argentina. For those interested in seeing Martha Argerich in action, live, in a venue near you, do visit the concert news webpage painstakingly maintained by ANDRYS BASTEN at:
Andrys has the best, most comprehensive website about Martha Argerich anywhere. Check out the discography and a whole bunch of other stuff about my favorite classical musician.
+ You could do worse than check out the LE MONDE DE LA MUSIQUE interview with Martha: there’s a convenient link already up at the top of my Personal Homepage!
+ LEARN MORE ABOUT MARTHA ! ! ! And for the really curious (or the slightly mad) you may wish to read some of my own pieces in which I introduce Martha to the good people of Ciao (oh, go on, you KNOW you WANT to read ‘em!):