Stage announcement: The pianist is having a bad hair day

Foreign correspondent Michael Johnson observes:

Many young pianists, increasingly desperate to draw attention to themselves, are resorting to new levels of flamboyance at the keyboard… Big hair is now in vogue.

Trifonov hair

I recently saw and heard the young Russian sensation Daniil Trifonov perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 to near-perfection at Boston’s Symphony Hall. But his bouncing on the piano bench, his outrageous hair-flicks and his swoons and spasms spoiled what would have been a five-star performance.

More criticism and drawings by Michael Johnson here.

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  • He elicited a similar reaction from the people around us when performing the same piece in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago.

    • Not having such a good face day either. (I’d tell him to smile more, but I don’t know if he’d be prettier.)

  • Frankly wouldn’t care if he came out with a shaved head wearing a tutu, as long as he continues to play at that level. Great talent!

    • You owe it to your audience as a performer – who often fundraise to pay your fees, particularly in Britain – to dress appropriately and be at least as well dressed as your audience. I have just come in from having done a lunchtime recital in Bradford Cathedral, and the last thing my pianist and I were going to do was to be a distraction to my audience in any way of getting to hear the music – the whole purposed of being there, not as an ego trip in a ‘frock’. And my audience were casually but smartly well dressed too, with no one fanning themselves with the programme, or flicking through the pages, or swaying with the music, or even picking their noses! They too were not a distraction.

  • They are mostly peasant imitations of the great Paderewski who by all comments
    of the time, Shaw , Burn-Jones etc. considered him not only beautiful in appearance
    but a formidable pianist . He supposedly sat quite still at the piano and let the
    audience go into hysteria over his playing .He did have writes Shaw a halo of
    golden red hair that was startling and his looks are repeated often in the Burne-Jones
    paintings .

  • Prokofiev 3 again!? Repertoire is so cautious and not necessarily the fault of the artists.
    Assumed lost, Moszkowski’s splendid 1st Piano Concerto (50minutes) was premiered recently, more than 100years after it was written. How about that for a change?

    • Absolutely agree. I’m a subscriber to the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall and I’m totally bored with the unadventurous fare on offer. My internet reception isn’t reliable and it often breaks up, but I won’t renew anyway because of the bland offerings.

  • Hilary, that’s another thread–and a huge one. I feel for the many who play the same rep as everyone else. They need to venture out of the box. It’s not about the crazy hair. That gets old. It takes alot to maintain a career, and as I said, that’s another huge topic. Perhaps Norman might create a thread about the differences between how artists started careers in the last half of the 20th century, and how they go about it now. That could actually be a book with interviews etc. Has to be more than the crazy hair and a decent Prok 3. I may be wrong, but it isn’t enough. Not for the long haul, atleast not anymore.

    • I don’t think they need to think any differently than they already are.
      I’ve listened to great pieces like Prokofiev 3rd for the past 25 years and am not even remotely sick of pieces like this.
      Matter of fact, I skipped the first half of a BPO concert once, because they chose to be adventurous and play a new piece. I arrived to the concert at about the same time as hundreds of other people. I’m sure the piece I missed was garbage and would have only served to ruin my evening.

      • I agree, Ross, and I love every time I perform the Prokofiev 3rd Concerto. My post reflects the need to focus more on the future of repertoire for these young artists to cultivate for their futures and the future of the piano concerto as a continuing and growing entity. My only ‘beef’ is that this should be the focus and not hair or what they wear, or what people look like. We are here for a short time, and, imho, it is our duty to make sure there are new works today, as they will be old works in the future. The Prokofiev 3 was new, but now it is old. We need more of them.

        • Agreed. But that involves quite an understanding of what is going-on nowadays in new music. Where new works fundamentally deviate from the practices and artistic norms of the central performance culture (something Prokofiev never did, of course), any attempt to include something new in a program will lead to the OOMP avoidance. Pianists (and managers of orchestras) have come to the conclusion that there is no reason to be curious, and that is also the responsibility on the creative side.

      • Ross:
        Prokofiev 3 was new once, and may well have been judged ‘garbage’ in some quarters. Take some risks in your listening habits.

        • Ah, the cliché. “That piece was also new once.” Yea, and it was good so people wanted to hear it again, and again, and again. It was written by a composer with his own language, a language which spoke to listeners.
          As for taking risks, I’ve been forced into taking risks for the past 25 years. At times I pretended to like the new garbage, at times I pretended to share the enthusiasm of snobs (who probably wouldn’t recognize it if they heard it again and won’t go out of their way to listen to it again), but I finally feel resigned to say nearly every new piece (of the several hundreds) I have heard is garbage. Hardly any of them caught on, and most of them received rave reviews from a dishonest poseur of a critic.
          Who was it that said “perhaps the problem was the composers, not the audience…”
          On top of all this, we have critics asking why Beethoven or Brahms is being played and encouraging more garbage production.

          • PS: please don’t come back with ONE critic’s harsh reception of a premiere of a now standard piece from 150 yrs ago.
            Because we’ve established that it is possible for a critic to be a poseur.

          • If you are correct that “nearly every new piece is garbage”, then we can cautiously estimate that roughly 1% of them is not. Out of a thousand pieces then, about ten would be worth hearing at least once or twice and possibly one or two would be good enough to become part of the repertoire. But if all of us follow your practice of avoiding all new music, then it will very soon become economically impossible to keep performing it and those rare gems will have no chance of ever being heard and will therefore be stillborn. That will certainly mean a quick death of classical music as a living and breathing art. In my opinion, it does not deserve such premature demise.

          • The welcoming attitude of many critics towards new music has much to do with the fear to appear in the next edition of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective”. Also, these same critics have bought the musico-ideological narrative of 20C modernism: there was / is progress from conservative limitation towards progressive liberation, which is – given the quality of so much ‘old’ music – turning the world upside-down, inside-out.

            But there are very good composers around again, and they have mastered the art of making the music ‘speak’, and (“surprisingly”) they all have turned towards ‘the past’ to learn their craft: Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa, David Matthews, and another bunch of courageous creators who are no longer afraid of appearing ‘conservative’ – nonsensical label anyway in the aesthetic field.

      • Wow! So much for the reputation of new music today. There was a time when the announcement of a new work was anticipated with excitement, even where the composer was generally considered ‘crazy’ or ‘bad’ or morally dangerous’ beforehand (Debussy, for instance). In the twenties new pieces were considered adorning concert programs. It is a postwar phenomenon that audiences avoid the OOMP without knowing what it is (Obligatory Opening Modern Piece).

        • M2N2K says: “But if all of us follow your practice of avoiding all new music, then it will very soon become economically impossible to keep performing it and those rare gems will have no chance of ever being heard and will therefore be stillborn. That will certainly mean a quick death of classical music as a living and breathing art.” Could not agree more, and in fact ‘classical music’ has already died in that sense. And attempts to revive it again, bump into a thick wall of indifference: in general, there is no wish to keep classical music alive in the sense of described above. For instance, almost ALL responsible executives at orchestral staff simply don’t want to know about new music, because it has become a hazard: reduced ticket sales and audiences avoiding the OOMP. Why be curious for hazards?

          The real problem is the difference between the central performance culture, with its aesthetic norms and implied standards – which are not stylistic but emotional and psychological – and what has become the ‘new music scene’, with its network of specialized performers and organizations, operating in a completely different field of experience. Why would performers bother about an art from for which there is another context out there? Most new work is written for the modern scene, and NOT for the central performance culture of classical music where the core repertoire is formed by the ‘classical composers’, providing the basis for musicianship and education. New music written for the central performance culture is rare, and is met with the greatest suspicion, because of the many attempts to program new works which do not belong there. And these attempts are the result of the linear narrative of music history which is wrong.

          • This is a little too verbose for my taste, but I do think that scheduling burial right now would still be rather premature.

    • Here’s how I see it:

      Imagine if actors doing recitations was as popular a thing as musicians performing concerti. How many times would we be willing to pay to see & hear an actor — any actor — perform, say, Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet”?

      Some people love that soliloquy so much that they will never get tired of hearing it, ever, and will gladly pay $40 (or the equivalent in pounds or euros or whatever) for each chance to hear it performed. Some people will eventually decide that they would like the experience of hearing something new in return for their $40.

      No disrespect to the composer (or author), but I think a lot of people simply reach their limit with hearing the same 3 or 4 pieces so often.

      I mean, OK, we all know by this point that Trifonov is a terrific pianist. (He played with my orchestra a couple of years ago; guess what piece? 🙂 ) Obviously he’s got stupendous technique and a lot of imagination. I’d love to have a chance to hear him play… oh, I don’t know… Mozart.

      On the other hand, the artists are not always free to choose what they can play. I remember an interview where Anne Akiko Meyers said she loves to play new music, but presenters only want Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn; the most “modern” thing she can get them to accept is Prokofiev.

      So it may be that Trifonov would like to branch out, but for now the Prokofiev is the thing everyone wants to hear him play. *sigh* Well, maybe someday.

      • Both getting it programmed in the first place and then the success of newer works somebody claims to love to play potentially may depend on how passionate the soloist really is about these works. We just had Isabelle van Keulen playing Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto “Offertorium”. I hadn’t known this piece myself before, but both the work and the soloist were simply stunning and rightfully enthousiastically received by the audience. Of course, some of those who already know in advance that pieces they haven’t heard yet are “trash” (see the comments in one of the next threads) may have missed it. Their loss.
        PS: Catptcha sucks mightily again.

  • I attended the same concert and was not aware of any spasms, swoons, hair flicks etc….some bouncing, but an astounding performance.

    • Exactly. His mannerisms, as limited as they are, generate from his own intuitive response to the music and piano.

      I’ll never forget watching Andre Watts playing the Liszt second in Salzburg in 1985, I was at the closed rehearsal. Not one extraneous movement, no grimaces or seeking God on the ceiling. Also was the finest, most subtle and coloristic playing I ever heard from Watts. Then, the concert, with the full Watts show, one that Lang Lang would envy. Mediocre, vulgar, overstated playing. A really sad spectacle, particularly after seeing his phenomenal gifts when no one was looking. Vanity is really the enemy of art. It’s why I keep faith in Yuja Wang. Despite the dresses, the minis ( a bikini photo shoot should be done so she can get it out of her system), the moment she begins to play she is a serious and concentrated artist.

      • Having rehearsed and performed with Andre Watts many times, I am quite certain that in concerts he doesn’t play much worse than in rehearsals. My suspicion is that for some reason in this case his performing mannerisms (which I have never observed to be particularly excessive) affected you so much that his playing only seemed to you “overstated” and “vulgar”. Too bad, because usually it isn’t either.

          • So, you were there in Salzburg and I wasn’t? Nothing more meaningful in ways of retort than telling someone they didn’t hear what they hear. You played eith him. Big deal. Ask yourself how I got into a closed rehearsal with the Gewandhaus before the fall of East Germany…. My views have substance. Watts performances were mocked by the press. He is a limited talent.

          • Why so touchy? Defensiveness of respect’s response above here suggests that I may have been correct in my previous comment. And whose talent isn’t limited? If anyone knows any “unlimited talents” among living pianists, please share!
            My opinion about AW is based on decades of performing with and listening to him. It is very clear to me that his interpretations may be criticized for certain shallowness and lack of originality, perhaps also for being primarily a pianist rather than a musician, but certainly not for being “overstated” or “vulgar”. He could not possibly become something he is not – for just one performance. As for being “mocked by the press”, I have seen so many gushing reviews of mediocre performances and trashing putdowns of inspired ones, that nothing surprises me anymore, whether it is in print or online.

  • Back during the 2010 Chopin Competition, the listener forums continuously snickered with comments about Trifonov’s crazed facial expressions. One of my favorites was “he looks like a child molester strangling a puppy.” And it was true, frankly. I worry that people who don’t know anything about classical music will think this (him, Lang Lang, Khatia) is how all pianists should appear onstage.

    • “And it was true, frankly”. Really? You have a clear image of a child molester strangling a puppy, and to you, it’s Trifonov? Why would anyone spread YouTube comment thread slanders against a brilliant young talent except jealousy? It’s one thing to be dubious about the puffed up claims for artists, or obscene, ceaseless self-promotion, whether through endless participation on boards when you really should be practicing……….. It’s offensive to spread these smears. The Age of Trump…..

      • You don’t understand what slander is. To say someone resembles something is not the same as saying they are something. Obviously! Besides I didn’t come up with it. Were you watching? Did you see how crazed the expressions were? They were completely demonic. Come back and say they weren’t demonic after you’ve watched all the footage.

      • And the sad part was that Bozhanov was the genius of that competition. He was at the very top until the concerto around.

  • Oh, shush. Maybe you old fossils should limit yourself to listening to LP recordings and reminisce about the good ole days.

    Never mind that most of the noteworthy musicians and performers in history like Liszt and Anton Rubinstein acted like they were possessed while on stage. Some of us actually like to see that the performers are enjoying themselves.

    • Yes, they had a different culture in those days, but we are where we are – and in my case, in England, where we have a different concert culture. It may not be to everyone’s liking but that’s what we have, and it’s not that bad!

    • Agreed. Even if he didn’t though, the overwhelming majority of humans possess eyes equipped with a practical “shut” function, the application of which is quick, effective and user-friendly.

    • The reason is probably because when playing duos he concentrates largely on listening to his partner; when playing solo, on the other hand (and, for the most part, with orchestra too), he is more concerned with communicating his self-expression as fully as possible. He is without a doubt a very fine musician regardless.

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