Monday, July 31, 2006

Some days, its a thrill to be human

If you search for melancholy+chopin you get 12000 hits: the word is hard to avoid if describing some of his music but if you switch depression or bipolar for melancholy, it is associated with the composer mostly on the 1000 or so pages put up by psychiatrists or nonprofits devoted to assuring you depression is a very common ailment. Of the many short biographies about Chopin on line, Wikipedia was far and away the best I found. I looked at a half dozen more before finding a Ms Schneider who mentioned how depression and the political and military upheavals in his native Poland affected the composer.

All this was amusingly and movingly portrayed in an offbeat dramatization about Chopin's life and music. We caught the final performance at a packed Sunday matinee. The one act play was written and performed by Hershey Felder. He is an accomplished pianist and a good enough actor to convince the audience throughout most of two hours of playing and talking to us that we have dropped in on Frederic Chopin at work as a teacher [which is how most musicians earned a living in those days, even the greats]. This Chopin is perhaps a lot more even tempered and forthcoming than the original but it would not do for him to act as depressed as Chopin was reported to have been. It would make the music incongruous. Felder has a greater passion in his play than playing the character of Chopin. He wants the music to do for us what it did for Chopin: lift our spirits. But I don't mean auditory uppers, I mean giving us that rare sip of both knowing and feeling something that is grand about our minds. In this he succeeded and the entire audiance was lifted from its seats for a standing ovation. I usually have to get comfortably away from all distraction, and play one of my special favorites from Brahms, Dvorak or Beethoven to get the goosebumps and I can't repeat a piece too frequently or the magic evaporates. But Chopin could express emotion with the best of them and Felder put it to the audience. I was most stirred when the piano did all the talking. This seems to fit with what is portrayed as Chopin's own understanding of his malady: he was most sane when he played.

It appears that not all the reviewers attended the same performance I did, or perhaps they didn't bring the same ghosts in with them as I do. The A.R.T. links to all the favorable reviews. The reviewer from a burb blurb spent more time backstage than in front of it. Mr. Kroll praises with faint condemnation: he wanted a graduate level lecture in composition and piano technique...a better reviewer would appreciate how well Felder matched his material to his audience. The work performed may be more of a teaching piece than an entertaining piece as far as critics are concerned. Fine by me. Film it so I can see it on PBS for years to come.

I count myself lucky because what lifted Mr. Chopin out of despair lifts me much higher.


Davo said...

One of the most beautiful things about 'written' music is that it can be re-created, re-interpreted, replayed, re-given. A truly timeless gift.

GreenSmile said...

Mr. Felder is a pianist from Canada who has made a unique career out of what I'd call "live music cricisim": he is doing a series of plays in the same vein as the one we saw. Beethoven and Gershwin are the subjects of the other two plays.

For half an hour after the standing ovation, as a kind of encore [since it was a kind of musical performance I guess that is possible] Felder stayed in character and took questions the audience would have asked Chopin if they could. The questions often went right to your point with people asking "Which pianists of our day are recording your works with the most fidelity to the feeling and expression you had in mind as you wrote?" A few of the modern great performers like Rubenstein were named but Felder/Chopin reminded us that the written music is only a potential, a promise made, but the performance shows how many ways the promise can be kept. He also reminded us that one reason that even a Chopin or his great influence, Mozart, took in a steady stream of students was that there was no recorded music other than the printed score so if you wanted to hear Chopin or any music, you learned to play: attending concerts was largely an activity of the rich and high-born and other than churches with organs, music halls were few and found only in major cities.

One of the reasons the music worked on me was the way it showed how well a man dealt a loosing hand with one good card in it played that hand beautifully and in defiance of all his demons and bad is over ourselves that some of our truest triumphs are made. Healthier and wealthier men all around you have come to no good end and left no treasures for posterity but only the echo of their whining.

GreenSmile said...

uh, that would be "live music criticism". Chopin had his melancholy, I have my spelling.