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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