May 28th 2016

Drawing on musical emotion --- it’s all in the eyes

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

For the past few years I have focused my critical sense mainly on piano music and my artwork on the performers who struggle to play it. The faces of some pianists mirror the creative process and thereby inspire my approach to their portraits. My challenge is to capture their moments of deepest feeling – be it joyous or tragic – in drawings. 

In a book-length treatment now in preparation, I am bringing together the critical commentary and the portraits of the musicians I have interviewed, reviewed or otherwise written about over the past few years. These excerpts will appear in “The Music Makers: A Critic’s Sketchbook”, to be published in the autumn.

I sometimes feel intrusive as I analyze faces of musicians. All portraiture takes an intimate approach to detail, examining eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles and folds -- to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo de Vinci invested five years in his great Mona Lisa. I am more modest. My final product emerges in a half-day of effort, or less if it quickly meets a few basic criteria: a recognizable likeness and an interpretation that conveys energy and character.

In sketching any musician, I pay special attention to the eyes, where everyone’s secret emotions lie hidden. Another clue can be loose strands of hair, indicating tossing or nodding or involuntary muscle spasms. The eyebrows sometimes dance. The jaw line might show clenching or strengthening, a sign of concentration, boldness and audacity.

Here are a few abbreviated excerpts and portraits of the pianists from the forthcoming book.

Lang Lang, born in 1982 in Shenyang, Liaoning, China, has single-handedly brought classical piano to new levels of popularity in the Western world with his astonishing technique, his adopted musical sense and his flair for showmanship. His repertoire extends from the Russians to the Germans and the French. Only his outsized exuberance in performance has marred his total acceptance by the public, although many critics excuse his excesses. Special praise has been reserved for his Beethoven, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Other critics, including this writer, find his swoons and spasms at the keyboard a calculated shtick and a sign of deep-seated ego problems. With more than a decade of recording and performing behind him, he travels with orchestras throughout Europe, the United States and Asia, his reputation preceding him. The future will tell whether he can rein in his showboating and allow the music he plays so well to tell his remarkable story.

Arkadi Volodos came late to the piano – serious study began only at age 15, in 1987. He was already immersed in music. Both his Leningrad parents were professional singers and he began as a voice student, then shifted to conducting. Finally he found his niche in piano studies and he rocketed to prominence with technical mastery and an intellectual depth. I was taken by his individuality when I witnessed a 2015 recital in Bordeaux. His reading of the long and sweeping Schubert Sonata in B-major D. 960 was the highlight of the evening. The melancholy second movement, the andante sostuneto, was slowed to a tempo that barely conserved its musical integrity. The effect was nothing short of luminous. His discography is slight but growing, with his own impressive operatic transcriptions plus high-level performances of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Schubert and Tchaikovsky establishing a firm reputation.

 

Vladimir Horowitz had the talent, charm and musical sensibilities to captivate music-lovers and a face that sent artists scrambling for their pencils. I tried to capture all of that in my sketch of this giant of the piano. His tone and color at the keyboard brought listeners to their feet cheering and/or weeping. His eyes had an elusive twinkle. Drawing him was nearly as pleasurable as hearing him play. In today’s crowded world of piano talent, so many reach the 95-99 percent range that it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Horowitz was one who could reach the 100 level and is still easy to identify.


Germaine Tailleferre published more than a hundred intriguing, surprising compositions ranging from solo piano and small ensemble creations to orchestral works, ballets and operas. She worked almost until her dying day. Regrettably she suffered abuse as a mere “woman composer” during her lifetime and, worse, the abuse continues. I wish to demur. Is there even such a thing as “women’s music”? Germaine Tailleferre wrote some of the liveliest, most powerful works to come out of “Les Six”, the composers who created a modern French school of composition in the 1920s and 1930s. In this Naxos recording of her Hommage à Rameau, movement III, allegro spiritoso (http://www.naxos.com/catalogue /item.asp?item_code=S2010) she shows what she was made of.  I confess that I chose Ms. Tailleferre as a sketching subject because she was a Parisian beauty but also to reward her individuality – her determination to compose only what sounded good to her, ignoring all kinds of advice from her five more dissonant colleagues. She fought the stereotype of the woman who supposedly is only able to write charming, dainty, melodious and delightful tunes.

Varduhi Yeritsyan is a rising piano talent building a broad discography of Russian and French compositions plus an exotic dimension from her native Armenia (“whimsical and fantasist”, she tells me in an interview). Her new CD of the ten Scriabin sonatas particularly impressed me. Raised and trained in Yerevan, then Moscow, then Paris, she was always immersed in Russian and French literature and musical culture. It is the Russian values – the passion, the excesses, the expressiveness, the contrasts – that make her what she is today, both as a pianist and a person. I include her in my book because of her majestic Scriabin interpretations but also for her dark beauty as a sketching subject. I tried to capture her slightly dreamy side that hints of passion. She is an adopted Parisian dating back 15 years, and remains in touch with her Armenian roots, frequently visiting family there.

Marc-André Hamelin is a Canadian export who has built a strong following with his superb technique, a broad repertoire and a charming personal manner. My two interview sessions with him, backstage at Bordeaux’s new Auditorium concert hall, brought out his love of new repertoire, restrained stagecraft and dedication to composers’ aims, not the pianist’s personality. I found him modest, informed and likeable. One of the most interesting things that emerged from our talk was his total rejection of my term “super-pianist” as a description of his easy displays of virtuostic pianism. He insisted he is no Ignatz Friedman, Artur Rubenstein, Josef Hoffmann, Simon Barrere or George Cziffra. In fact he insisted I remove that term after it appeared in my first mention of him on FactsandArts.com. (I complied.) He also cautioned young players against the stage antics many have indulged in, seeking attention from the paying public. Some pianists make him angry as they overdo the physicality of playing. Speaking of himself, he said: “I must bore some people because I don’t move when I play. My contention is that people should come to concerts to listen, not to watch. I can assure you that you will not learn anything by watching me.”


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Feb 27th 2024
EXTRACT: "Question: Some pianophiles say the CD could be useful for meditation, therapy or even healing. ---- Answer: Indeed, that is the kind of feedback I am getting. But this music doesn’t belong to me any more, therefore I cannot label it with any purpose. It has taken on a life of its own. I can’t say how it affects the life of other people. Will it be therapeutic or will it have another effect? Time will tell."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "Seated in a quiet corner of a Bordeaux hotel last week, we had an interview – more a casual chat – about her life, her Soviet Russian origins, her career, her future."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Schiff creates an atmosphere that we 'seniors' remember from the old days. No clowning, no bouncing on the bench, no outlandish clothing. He dresses in a black smock, black trousers, black shoes, topped off with a mane of pure white hair. His manners, his grateful bowing, are très Old Europe. ---- Schiff keeps control of his two hours onstage. He believes that dignity goes with the great music on the program and he scarcely moves as he plays."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "  Boston-based guitarist, band leader and composer Phil Sargent is not about churning out endless CDs. In fact his ten-year recording gap, just ended, had his fans wondering where he was. But in New York and Boston, he tells me, he has never stopped working with other groups while composing and actively teaching young and mature talent. Although not always visible, he seems to be a confirmed workaholic, even practicing five hours a day. Yes, virtuosos also need to practice. ---- And now he is back. His new CD, 'Sons'....."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "There is a renewed fascination with the memory-stimulating and healing powers of music. This resurgence can primarily be attributed to recent breakthroughs in neuroscientific research, which have substantiated music’s therapeutic properties such as emotional regulation and brain re-engagement. This has led to a growing integration of music therapy with conventional mental health treatments."
Sep 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "British psychotherapist, Michael Lawson, who has worked with several prodigies and former prodigies, calculates there may be as many as 200,000 piano prodigies active in the world today. “In a sense, they are not that rare,” he says in our interview below. Lawson is author of International Acclaim: The Steinfeld Legacy a new novel of the great pianists of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which the prodigy phenomenon is described in some detail."
Sep 17th 2023
EXTRACT: "Like so many stories about relationships told over an extended time, Past Lives uncovers the twists and turns, the “what ifs” and the manifold choices that lead to two people wondering whether they were meant to be together."
Sep 12th 2023
EXTRACT: " OrpheusPDX, a new company founded by Christopher Mattaliano in Portland, Oregon, concluded its second season with a brilliant and thought-provoking production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters,” at Lincoln Hall (August 24), exploring and exposing relationships in a polygamous sect and the courage of one sister-wife to leave it. With Stephen Karam’s libretto inspired by memoirs of women who have left the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and the 2008 raid of the YFZ Ranch by the FBI, “Dark Sisters” was delivered with spot-on directing by Kristine McIntyre and riveting performances by an exceptional cast."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Wagner’s operas are well known to be budget busters, and lack of funds is probably one of the main reasons that Seattle Opera has not mounted the Ring Cycle in since 2013. After Speight Jenkins retired from his post as General Director in 2014, the company delivered The Flying Dutchman (2016) and Tristan und Isolde (2022), the latter under its current General Director, Christina Scheppelmann. Now starting its 60th season, Seattle Opera celebrated with Das Rheingold, but that can be seen as a bittersweet moment since Scheppelmann is moving on to take over La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels at the end of the 2023-2024 season."
Jul 6th 2023
EXTRACT: " More than a hundred recordings have been made of his suite of 14 light pieces he called “The Carnival of the Animals”, and a range of his other works remain in the standard repertoire."
Jun 18th 2023
EXTRACT: "Conservatories and university music departments are filling up with fee-paying Asians as their parents pressure them to succeed in the West. Piano competitions around the world, now numbering about 800, are open to this new wave of Asian players. They are winning top prizes and they are building careers in Europe and the U.S.  Too often, according to some teachers, young Americans prefer computer games, the latest movies, rock bands, sports, or other less-demanding activities. The Asians are happy to fill the vacuum."
May 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "Three of Europe’s longtime leaders in contemporary jazz, now in their senior years, have just launched a CD of twelve  pieces that shows what a lifetime of sharing ideas in music can really produce." “New Stories” (Frémeaux et Associés) by the French trio of pianist and composer Hervé Sellin, bassist Jean-Paul Celea and drummer Daniel Humair is remarkable for improvisations so synchronized that the listener can feel the music come together from three angles in real time. The tracks were mostly composed or improvised by Sellin."
Mar 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "The young ex-dancer from Italy first burst upon the piano scene three years ago with 20 of her hand-picked Scarlatti sonatas. Now comes her second CD (Academy Classical Music) even more original and powerful, performing six of Baldassare Galuppi’s 18th century sonatas. Margherita Torretta‘s early training as a dancer gives her playing a swaying, graceful air while she maintains Alberti bass for control of the rhythm, momentum and especially continuity. Her ornamentation is boosted with some of her own improvisations, producing a fresher feel. It’s a magic combination."
Mar 24th 2023
EXTRACT: "Driven by a sense of mission and determination over several years, French pianist Lydia Jardon has completed a rare cycle of nine piano sonatas by Nikolai Miaskovsky. Her new CD  of numbers 6, 7 and 8 completes the task and offers a particularly rich sample of Russian experience in the worst of times. Miaskovsky may be only vaguely remembered today but he was a leader in the Soviet music world until the end of World War II. He left a wide range of engaging sonatas that have been brought back to life by Mme. Jardon on her own label AR Ré-Sé (AR 2022-1)."
Mar 16th 2023
EXTRACTS: "The most ambitious application yet of Steinway’s new digital piano, Spirio r, delivers stunning levels of sound and color in the new CD release of The Richter Scale, an hour-long keyboard drama written by well-known German composer and pianist Boris Bergmann." ----- "For the first time, the Spirio has been configured on a Steinway D grand to enable four-hand pieces to be played by two hands. The secondo score is first recorded in playback mode then combined with the live primo part. Liu is the live player who has to coordinate and fuse the two."---- "I took Bergmann’s advice and listened to the full composition from start to finish to best feel the gathering emotional turbulence. I was gripped by the melodies, harmonies, rhythms and percussive explosions along the way."
Feb 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The piano music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen is rapidly emerging from obscurity where it has reposed since his death in 1953. One of the champions of this rebirth is the Serbian-American pianist Ivan Ilic who acknowledges he discovered Jongen only by accident. Researching early 20th century music, he recalls, “somehow Jongen appeared on my radar.” He quickly dived into archives in Belgium and became immersed in Jongen’s prolific output."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "One duo of special interest today is the pairing of brother-and-sister pianists of Slovenian origin,  Zala and Val Kravos. Both are veterans of solo performances and joint four-hand playing internationally. Their new CD offers....... The musicality and the technical perfection achieved by this team sets it apart from others in the same category."
Dec 23rd 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the festival’s best surprises was the glamorous Russian-born Irina Lankova. Her evening was dominated by Rachmaninov and perfectly suited her origins. She has invented a program of music and fireside chats, creating a quick and pleasant connection with her audience. At ease between numbers, she chatted in relaxed manner notable for her erudition. Dressed in a modest ankle-length gown, she was all about music, not showboating. Contrary to several other women headliners in the piano world today, she says “I do not need to eroticize my looks”. ---- Her opening Rachmaninov  Elegie No. 1 cast a silent spell over the Femina Concert Hall and she carried her charm through nearly two hours of graceful pianism. It is not unusual, she told me in an interview, to leave members of the audience in tears. 'I also cry, at least internally, when I play,' she says."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Classical guitarist Jose Manuel Lezcano breaks new ground with his first solo CD,  “Homage: Spain & Latin America”. He combines two Scarlatti sonatas and his adaptation of works by Maurice Ravel, Bill Evans and the great Paraguayan guitar virtuoso Augustin Barrios. Mood and tempo jump from the contemplative to familiar classics to dance to jazz. I found the CD so captivating I played it in loop for hours." ----- "Twice a Grammy-awarded  composer and guitarist, Lezcano lives in retirement in the U.S. northeast and teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire where he holds the title emeritus professor."
Sep 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "When I try to understand my life as a critic in the dazzling world of piano music, I am at a loss. We have inherited so much over 300 years that I feel overwhelmed. There is no obvious focal point. What is at the heart of piano world? -- Personally I could not make it through the day without the stimulation of piano performance. My home resounds with music all my waking hours, constantly renewed from the thousand-odd CDs I have accumulated." ----- Picture: The author, Michael Johnson.