Tuesday, April 28, 2009

One of the Best Pianists in the world today Krystian Zimerman of Poland in protest of the US military policies overseas.

One of the Best Pianists in the world today Krystian Zimerman of Poland in protest of the US military policies overseas.

The Polish pianist tells a Disney Hall audience he won't play here again, citing military policies.
By Jessica Garrison and Diane Haithman
April 28, 2009
Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who is widely admired for his virtuosic performances and who famously tours with his own custom-altered Steinway, created a furor at Disney Hall on Sunday night when he stopped his recital to announce that this would be his last American appearance -- in protest of the nation's military policies overseas.

In a low voice that could not be heard throughout the auditorium, Zimerman, universally considered among the world's finest pianists, made reference to Guantanamo Bay and U.S. military policies toward Poland.

"Get your hands off my country," he said.



Then he turned to the piano and played Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme" with such passion and intensity that the stunned audience gave him multiple ovations.

Earlier, about 30 or 40 people in the audience had walked out after Zimerman's declaration, some shouting obscenities.

"Yes," the pianist, known in Poland as "King Krystian the Glorious," answered, "some people, when they hear the word military, start marching."

Zimerman then said that America has far finer exports than its military -- and he thanked those who supported democracy. He left the stage without further comment and was unavailable Monday.

His manager, Mary Pat Buerkle, told the Associated Press on Monday that Zimerman has talked for the last couple of years about not coming back to the United States "for a while. . . . I don't think it's appropriate to say it's all political."

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years, but many in the classical music world thought they were logistical.

Just a week ago, before an appearance in Seattle, Zimerman expressed frustration about the hassle and expense of touring the U.S. with his piano.

Shortly after Sept. 11, his instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the Transportation Security Administration decided to take no chances and destroyed the piano. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands. To get from city to city within the U.S., he hires a driver to take the shell of the piano, and he drives another car that holds the precious custom-designed keys and hammers.

Lately, he'd seemed pleased with the direction the United States has taken. During a performance Friday at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, he delighted his Bay Area audience by making sly reference to his approval of Barack Obama in the White House.

But by the time he drove his piano to Los Angeles, Zimerman's mood appeared to have darkened. His remarks, which some in the audience characterized as angry, were the talk of Los Angeles' classical music world and its small Polish community Monday.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that while some patrons were taken aback by Zimerman's comments,she did not believe it would affect attendance or fundraising.

"It was very clear he was speaking for himself," she said. "We obviously can't censor. We believe in freedom of expression. We don't use a hook to drag people off the stage."

In a spirited range of comments on The Times' Culture Monster blog, many praised Zimerman and others said the stage was no place for divisive political speech. "Go Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you," said one post, referring to the country music group that in 2003 created a ruckus when a member said they were ashamed President Bush was from Texas.

Others noted that though classical music culture in the United States is among the least overtly political of enclaves, Poland has a long tradition of mixing the political and the musical. Composer and pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski was Poland's third prime minister and is revered in Poland the way the Founding Fathers are here.

"There is a tradition of Polish pianists being in the middle of political events," said Marek Zebrowski, director of the Polish Music Center at USC.

Though Poland gets comparatively little attention in the U.S., American policy recently has been a hot-button issue in Poland. Poles were upset about allegations that the CIA held suspected Al Qaeda militants in secret prisons in Poland. A Polish newspaper mockingly referred to the country as "the 51st state." Also controversial was a Bush administration proposal to put missile defense facilities there.

Sumi Hahn, a Seattle journalist who interviewed Zimerman earlier this month, said she was not surprised to hear of his outburst. She said he told her that he had "very mixed feelings now about America."

It's been said in many ways by many people that hearing Bach is like hearing God. Last night at Meany Hall, God took things one step further. He walked onto the stage in the form of pianist Krystian Zimerman and declared, "Let there be light."

The edifice that arose in the shape of Bach's Partita No. 2 was constructed entirely of sounds that gleamed like shafts of pure energy. Each note Zimerman shaped seemed surrounded by a halo; chord progressions grew upon the next in crystalline formations. When Bach is played like this, without ego or display, the dazzling mathematics of the composition's mechanics turn invisible, revealing the glowing soul of the music itself.

If the Bach was divine, the Beethoven was divine madness. The Sonata No. 32 is a strange creature whose first half ripples with muscular chords and feathery trills. It lurks and lopes, chasing its tail in a fit of fugue before laying itself to rest. At times, Zimerman, who is a slight figure with silver hair, had to grab his seat to control the beast as it writhed.

There was a bit of grumbling at intermission about the program change announced at the start of the recital. Zimerman was replacing Brahms' "Klavierst├╝cke" with Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz's Second Piano Sonata, an anxious, tattered tapestry of urban clamor that frays away to a wisp.

Alone, the Bacewicz would have been a mere curiosity, but next to compatriot Karol Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Theme," the change made sense. Bacewicz's piece served as a flag of sorts, to mark the Polish landscape Zimerman would create with the "Variations." It also helped answer the question the pianist had posed at the start of the night: "What is the purpose of this music?"

Zimerman conjured the landscape of his homeland with an expat's wistfulness. Out of a bedrock of noise, pointed spires rose melodically then fell; glissandos floated overhead like clouds; a village of cottages was spun out of twinkly folk song. The music had almost tangible mass, sometimes vaporous, other times solid as brick. Zimerman's purpose was clear: To remind us that there are those who will bleed for art, because no life is worth living without it.

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman's political speech during his debut recital at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles shocked his Californian audience. He told the Americans to "Get your hands off my country", before he played Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's Variations on a Polish Theme. But Zimerman has a track record with making political comment part of his concerts. Since 2003 and the war in Iraq, he has spoken out about the war when he was playing in any country that supported it: even, in Tokyo, giving a speech about international geo-politics in Japanese. This time, it's Obama's decision to continue the Bush policy of building a missile defence shield in Poland that has angered him – so much so that he said to the audience in Los Angeles that this would be his last appearance in America.

When I met Zimerman last year to interview him for Music Matters, I asked him if he really thought this kind of protest was the best way of making a point. His answer was that he couldn't in good conscience play to an audience in a country whose political leaders he disagreed with, without making some kind of stand. Zimerman isn't naïve enough to think that his way of speaking out is going to change US policy in Eastern Europe. But he feels his music making can only speak to listeners who understand where he's coming from.

It may have been clumsy – the Los Angeles Times's critic Mark Swed said that Zimerman's voice was "quiet but angry" and "did not project well" – but I admire Zimerman's convictions. Gumbel says that "classical musicians are not exactly famous for political ranting". I don't agree: from Paderewski, Poland's piano virtuoso prime minister, to Hanns Eisler, from Cornelius Cardew to Kurt Masur, countless classical composers and performers have been just as vocal and committed in their political beliefs as have any other musicians. It's probable Zimerman only made his speech because of the Polish music he was about to play. Playing Bach and Beethoven is one thing, but performing Szymanowski's virtuosic Polish Variations for the exotic East-European delectation of a Los Angeles audience must have stuck in Zimerman's craw. Which is why he exploded, in his "quiet but angry" way.

The reaction of the audience, from cheering to walk-outs, showed that Zimerman touched a nerve, both in potentially offending his Californian hosts, and in breaking the invisible wall that often separates classical musicians from their audiences. I'm glad Zimerman isn't afraid to shatter that barrier, and to show that however cut off from the world a celebrity recital in a glitzy hall might seem to be, it's not. In Berkeley, an earlier leg of Zimerman's US tour, he asked the audience to appreciate how Bach's music could be heard as political: the Second Partita was composed in a minor key, perhaps, Zimerman said, because there was a leader that Bach didn't like. Zimerman ended the piece in C major, instead of the C minor that Bach writes, a sly indication that Zimerman approves of Obama more than Bush. But not enough, apparently, to play in America again. I hope, for the US, that he changes his mind (he's made the same promise about never playing in the States before, but then returned). Performers have every right to remind us of the political and social systems that connect us all, and to confront audiences with the difficult musical meanings that are latent in any concert programme. More power to your elbow, Krystian.

What led to Krystian Zimerman's surprising comments, walkouts
6:03 AM, April 28, 2009
Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who is widely admired for his virtuosic performances and who famously tours with his own custom-altered Steinway, created a furor at Disney Hall on Sunday night when he stopped his recital to announce that this would be his last American appearance -- in protest of the nation's military policies overseas.

In a low voice that could not be heard throughout the auditorium, Zimerman, universally considered among the world's finest pianists, made reference to Guantanamo Bay and U.S. military policies toward Poland.

"Get your hands off my country," he said.

Then he turned to the piano and played Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme" with such passion and intensity that the stunned audience gave him multiple ovations.

Earlier, about 30 or 40 people in the audience had walked out after Zimerman's declaration, some shouting obscenities.

"Yes," the pianist, known in Poland as "King Krystian the Glorious," answered, "some people, when they hear the word military, start marching."

Zimerman then said that America has far finer exports than its military -- and he thanked those who supported democracy. He left the stage without further comment and was unavailable Monday.

His manager, Mary Pat Buerkle, told the Associated Press on Monday that Zimerman has talked for the last couple of years about not coming back to the United States "for a while. . . . I don't think it's appropriate to say it's all political."

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years, but many in the classical music world thought they were logistical.



Just a week ago, before an appearance in Seattle, Zimerman expressed frustration about the hassle and expense of touring the U.S. with his piano.

Shortly after Sept. 11, his instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the Transportation Security Administration decided to take no chances and destroyed the piano. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands. To get from city to city within the U.S., he hires a driver to take the shell of the piano, and he drives another car that holds the precious custom-designed keys and hammers.

Lately, he'd seemed pleased with the direction the United States has taken. During a performance Friday at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, he delighted his Bay Area audience by making sly reference to his approval of Barack Obama in the White House.

But by the time he drove his piano to Los Angeles, Zimerman's mood appeared to have darkened. His remarks, which some in the audience characterized as angry, were the talk of Los Angeles' classical music world and its small Polish community Monday.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that while some patrons were taken aback by Zimerman's comments,she did not believe it would affect attendance or fundraising.

"It was very clear he was speaking for himself," she said. "We obviously can't censor. We believe in freedom of expression. We don't use a hook to drag people off the stage."

In a spirited range of comments on The Times' Culture Monster blog, many praised Zimerman and others said the stage was no place for divisive political speech. "Go Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you," said one post, referring to the country music group that in 2003 created a ruckus when a member said they were ashamed President Bush was from Texas.

Others noted that though classical music culture in the United States is among the least overtly political of enclaves, Poland has a long tradition of mixing the political and the musical. Composer and pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski was Poland's third prime minister and is revered in Poland the way the Founding Fathers are here.

"There is a tradition of Polish pianists being in the middle of political events," said Marek Zebrowski, director of the Polish Music Center at USC.

Though Poland gets comparatively little attention in the U.S., American policy recently has been a hot-button issue in Poland. Poles were upset about allegations that the CIA held suspected Al Qaeda militants in secret prisons in Poland. A Polish newspaper mockingly referred to the country as "the 51st state." Also controversial was a Bush administration proposal to put missile defense facilities there.

Sumi Hahn, a Seattle journalist who interviewed Zimerman earlier this month, said she was not surprised to hear of his outburst. She said he told her that he had "very mixed feelings now about America."

In the past five years," she quoted him as saying, "something happened here that changed the world: a war based on lies. . . . So much damage was done worldwide ... and Americans are so unaware."

On the other hand, Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances in Berkeley, said he was surprised to hear of Zimerman's L.A. comments -- especially because of the lightness that characterized his performance in Berkeley.

Just before playing a Bach partita, Zimerman told his audience it was important to consider the political purpose of a piece of music. Bach, he told his audience, "had made a decision to put his piece in a minor key rather than a major one." Perhaps, he said, according to audience members who were there, he did that because there was a leader Bach didn't like.


Zimerman made an approving reference to Obama and then played the piece, but ended it in a joyful C major instead of amelancholy C minor.

"The audience loved it," said Christina Kellogg, director of public relations at Cal Performances. "His playing was brilliant and they broke into huge applause, and he was clearly pleased that the audience was completely with him."

Cole said he had breakfast with the pianist last week at a music-themed cafe across the street from the campus. Zimerman spoke mainly of how exhausting it was to travel with a Steinway.

"I'm sorry he's not coming back," Cole said. "He reminds me of Don Quixote. He's on a quest for perfection."

Cole added that, from a public relations perspective, it's too bad Zimerman hadn't offered his comments about Bach to Los Angeles and saved his fiery political rhetoric for Berkeley.

"I think he maybe picked the wrong place," he said. "It would have been less of an uproar here."

--Jessica Garrison and Diane Haithman with Mark Swed contributing.

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