Missed Opportunity - Abbey Simon's Concert
After playing at Lincoln Center's newly re-opened Alice Tully Hall a few weeks ago (Chamber Music Society's Prokofiev Festival), I was very eager to play a solo piano recital in the hall - or at least hear a piano recital! The very successful renovation did relatively little to the acoustics as heard from the stage - I had always found it a pleasant if not rewarding stage to play on, for chamber music or solo. There was a slight lack of reverb coming back from the audience that made the big build up of sound impossible, and yet it was clean and rich. I'd sat in the hall many times as well, and the renovation has done a lot to improve the situation from that perspective. The acoustics are much finer and focused, and the viewing in particular has been vastly improved. Before, when I sat in the house, I had a feeling of being in the middle of an open field, with those strange low middle walls seeming to cut off the back of the hall from the front. Now, the visuals, the colors, the flow all seem to guide the listener to the stage. My experience with the Chamber Music Society concert was wonderful for many reasons, but the one frustrating aspect was the fact that both pieces I played - the Prokofiev F minor Sonata for Violin and the D Major for Flute - required some pulling back in terms of sound. The Flute Sonata especially required some nimble control in order to convey a sense of depth and density and not overwhelm the lower register of the flute. Despite all of Ransom Wilson's efforts, I think that there were still moments when the flutist looked like he was miming the part. Sorry Ransom! All this to say that I am still looking forward to the opportunity to pull a full sound from a great piano in that hall. I think it will feel great on stage. Until then, it was a great joy to be in the audience for one of the first piano recitals in the new Tully, last night for the concert of Abbey Simon. When I studied with Mr. Simon (it is still hard for me to call him Abbey, though I try) over 20 years ago, he did not seem any livelier or engaged than he did last night on stage and backstage. What amazed me then still amazed me today - the unusual technique that combines seemingly stiff arms and hands and incredibly powerful and dextrous fingertips - I could never figure this out, despite all of my efforts to duplicate the look and feel; the infallible musical line, almost to a fault I would say in some music that requires (in my humble opinion!) a more non-musical or even ugly approach, but never unwelcome in Chopin or Schumann or even Beethoven; the ability to bring out beautiful inner voices that I had never heard before, and sometimes could not find even after searching in the score; the amazing musical memory and (when that might rarely fail) the even more amazing improvisational gift. This was the first time I had heard Abbey play Bach - he began the program with the C Minor Toccata. I would not have pegged him to play this piece, but his performance was beautiful, with all the freedom of a Busoni and the complexity of a Hamelin. The fugues were delineated so clearly, and yet with such musical flexibility they seemed fully contemporary. He was not against the occasional doubling of the left hand with octaves to create more bass support. It was a glorious opening. The Clementi Sonata that followed was one played by Horowitz, and the comparison was hard to avoid, given that I had not heard anyone else play this piece before. It put into perspective for me how Mr. Simon fit so well into that mold of pianists - completely individual, but with great respect for the music, and all aspects of "music" - which include the repertoire, the style, the stage presence, the virtuosity, the charm. The Beethoven Sonata Opus 81a finished the first half. The joy of playing the piano came through first and foremost, and this work, one of the rare pieces of Beethoven's that carry any programmatic reference to the outside world, made clear to me how Abbey's playing was consistently "piano-playing". He never tries to make the piano sound like a voice, or like a harpsichord, or like an orchestra. It always sounds like a gorgeous piano, in all the myriad subtleties of color and dynamics that the instrument affords. Likewise, his presentation of the instrument, of himself, of the concert, is always pointing to piano-playing and its great joys and powers. Chopin always strove to make the piano sing, and Liszt always wanted to make the piano an orchestra. Debussy tried to create a gamelan, and Busoni wanted an organ. Prokofiev wanted to tell a fairy-tale. Boulez wanted to make you think. Rachmaninoff was one of the few who just wanted a piano, and he would make it work to the limits of its possibilities. Schubert also wrote music that was just music for the piano, no more, no less. Listening to Abbey play Beethoven, I suddenly felt an urge to hear him play Schubert, which, like Bach, I also have never heard him play in concert. The second half began with two charming Chopin Waltzes - impetuous, swirling and whirling. I wondered how he was able to ping some of the high notes, with the right hand hovering above the keyboard seemingly forever, and yet what hand was it that was playing the melody back in the middle of the keyboard! Abbey's ability to manipulate the pulse was one of the things I admired most in his playing when I studied with him, and it was something I pondered and experimented with for many years before finding my own way of working with and around the pulse. The F Minor Ballade followed, one of the pieces I had worked on with Mr. Simon during my Juilliard days. My memory of lessons were long faded and illegible, and the score that I had used at the time, with notes from those lessons and others has since been left sitting in a phone booth somewhere in Paris. But I did remember, as I listened, the feeling of bewilderment as I contemplated all the different aspects that combined to create his Ballade, when I was simply struggling to learn the notes and get it memorized. I could not have been aware of even a 1/10 of what I seemed to be hearing now, with the experiences since lived and the appreciate since gained. I do, however, remember thinking many times "so this is what I will have to be able to do if I have any hopes of having any kind of career as a performer." I was slightly disheartened to hear the occasional passages of infamous technical difficulty being swept through, dissonances from octaves played slightly too small, chords played slightly too crushed, passagework executed slightly less crystalline than I had seemed to remember him doing perhaps 5-10 years ago. He had had his accident a few years ago, the broken thumb that had not healed well, and which forced him to rethink his fingering in repertoire that he had lived with for decades without any thought of accomodation. But the thoughts quickly turned any disappointment into another kind of amazement, of being able to fiddle with the pedal and some follow-up voicing to cleverly conceal the dissonances, the extraneous notes used to add some special "color". And the musical line was never broken, not for a second. Many pianists of a certain age begin to slow down. Many have more to say, and they feel they have earned the right to slow down and say all of those things, and we listen to them with gratefulness. Other pianists probably are happy to have the excuse of age to pull back a bit on the gas, and they discover that they can find great music in places they had not looked into before. It seems to me that Mr. Simon has found a way to keep his age at bay for the most part. His tempos show no sign of slowing, and yet he still has so many things to say. His musical flourishes (not virtuosic flourishes, although they are virtuosic to execute them the way he does) often push the tempo, in order to later slow down in suspension, and I felt no trepidation in his willingness to do just that, even as his technique perhaps might sometimes have advised him otherwise. For the most part, Mr. Simon is still the "young" pianist that I knew from the 70's and 80's! The final piece on the program, Ravel's Miroirs, was a work that I "discovered" in Paris, and my approach had always been somewhat different from what I had heard around me, from both French and non-French pianists. A bit slower, a bit more flexible, yet around a rigidly held pulse. It had been years since I heard Abbey play any of Miroirs, in fact, certainly before I studied the piece myself. My curiosity was doubly satisfied as I listened to an interpretation that I would have been happy to claim for my own. I had never heard Oiseaux Tristes played with the kind of shape of the line and layering of voices except in my own mind as I tried to play it that way myself, and here was Mr. Simon doing it just that way. Likewise with Noctuelles, the musical approach that was not lyrical per se, but certainly also not virtuosic, somewhere in that middle ground between the piano and rustling leaves. Perhaps without even knowing it, I had absorbed Mr. Simon's teaching even in pieces I had not studied directly with him. Alborada del gracioso was a graceful end to the program, which then continued with only two encores! We all wanted more, all of the few hundred people in the 1800-seat Tully Hall that seemed to shrink that number to just dozens. And no press! Where was the NY Times, who had so graciously attended another of my own CMS concerts, in the tiny Rose Studio, no less, and had recently given many inches of text and pictures to Andras Schiff and Nelson Freire. Certainly, both of these pianists are worthy of some time and some ink, but all the more so then that Abbey Simon should merit at least 3 inches and a grainy photograph. Well, it was only yesterday. I will keep my eyes open for something, some kind of after-effect that could possibly let a few people know that they missed an incredible opportunity to see one of the great pianists, still playing in a way that thrills and chills. We who were there, many of us students of his from various stages of life, from ages 20 to 70, come from around the area and from far-off states, were in the know, and we knew not to be anywhere else that particular evening.