Meet Kissin the composer

The caption reads: Evgeny Kissin performing his very own ‘Toccata’ at the 2017 Verbier Festival, enjoy!

In his recent Memoir and Reflections, Kissin talks of taking time out to compose.

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  • It’s not serious, a fun piece for encores. It makes me think of Schoenberg who was not content with merely composing, and painted (very badly), and also created a complicated three-dimensional chess game; when he was expecting a visit by a famous professional chess player, his family members asked why he was hiding his chess board and pieces. His answer: ‘He must never know these things, otherwise I will have to listen to his compositions’. So, everybody has his hobbies.

  • I’ll take Kissin, like Trifonov or Andre-Hamelin, as pianist over composer any day. Their excursions into composition are sad reminders of a lost language. Kissin’s new LvB disc is awesome.

    • The actual name of the pianist you refer to is Marc-André Hamelin. You seem to be making a conflation with the name of another (and younger) exceptional French Canadian pianist, Charles Richard-Hamelin, who to my knowledge has no activity as a composer to his credit yet. Be careful with your hyphens!

    • So then, are you saying Cortot will vanish from history, and Kempff will be remembered mostly for his Trio? Because I don’t think so at all…

  • ==Only composing instrumentalists will live in history.

    Yes, I wonder what Barenboim’s compositions were like which in his youthful days he took to Nadia Boulanger ?

      • I think that what we forget is that MOST music written during any period – written by instrumental virtuoso and non-virtuoso alike – is less than compelling over time. At best, some of it becomes curiosities to a small group of folks. This is just statistics. When we look to the past, we see the few peaks crowding out the multitude of valleys. But this is a problem of perspective. That we measure every new work we hear against the greatest masterpieces of the present or past is unfair and it prevents us from enjoying a work for what it is and leaving it at that and not get overwhelmed with glee because one aspect of a musician’s output is better than the other.

        By the way, does anyone know the George Szell Piano Quintet?

        • Szell’s Quintet (like all of his extant works) is the work of a gifted mimic. Every conductor composes; it’s an essential part of the training. The problem for conductors is that the sheer amount of music they must know and absorb can make it difficult for a personal compositional voice to emerge. Having wrestled with this myself, I can attest to the truth of it. Because of what you know, it becomes easy to unconsciously emulate. It’s the “that sounds like famous composer X syndrome. Some manage to get further in this regard than others; Weingartner and Bernstein immediately come to mind.

          Composition isn’t just a full-time job, it is a lifestyle and the single most difficult thing to do in classical music. That doesn’t mean that anyone shouldn’t try anyway; many delightful things have resulted from such honest efforts.

          • I wasn’t suggesting that Szell’s quintet was or wasn’t a great work – I’ve never heard it. I was simply asking if any readers had.

            Regarding conductors who compose, I’m not sure what evidence actually suggests that the more music one knows, the less original one’s music is. One can, after all, simply be a great performer without having anything original to say as a composer – and the majority of folks, conductors or not, do not have anything original to say as a composer. And just consider the great performers who were also composers of great distinction: JS Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Prokofiev, Mahler, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, Webern, Boulez, etc. (I’m not sure how many people are aware of how broad Rachmaninoff’s performing repertoire was before he left Russia.) And, who would suggest composers like Brahms, Hindemith, and Schoenberg did not have an encyclopedic and knowledge of music on a very deep level but still managed to write music of great originality?

          • Dan, while all of those executants conducted, only for two was the occupation their focal pursuit. Instrumentalists are one thing, but no one has to know more music than conductors, and therein lies the rub. For dedicated conductors, all those notes bumping into each other can be stifling for personal creativity.

          • Minacciosa, I understand what you’re saying but what is the evidence that the reason conductors fail to produce original compositions is any different from the reason that non-conductors produce similarly derivative work? Could the reason be that composers become conductors because they realize that either they have no specific ability to be original as a composer or no real drive to compose? Szell himself stated that early in his life he came to a point where he realized his abilities lay in being an interpreter rather than as a creator.

            Also, could it be that statistically speaking, among the musically inclined and talented, there have always been many more persons with serious abilities as an interpreter than as a creator? Could this also be the reason why there is an infinitely larger percentage of readers who become teachers of literature than writers of memorable fiction?

            All I’m saying is that it is extremely rare for ANYONE to become an original – or at the very least, a memorable – creator in any field, than it is to be an explainer, interpreter, or just an interested party. I just don’t see any reason to suggest a causal relationship between the amount of literature one knows and the originality of their work.

            I think a more interesting question is this: what are the outside conditions into which original creators flourish. Ezra Pound had an interesting theory about this with respect to literature in his book the ABC’s of Reading.

          • My music history teacher, when talking about a certain well-known early last century composer, said that the reason that composer’s melodies kept zigzagging up and down all the time was because he had phenomenal musical memory and so after each two notes he had to keep avoiding what someone else wrote after similar two notes. An amusing theory but for the most part probably full of BS.
            All truly gifted composers know lots of music and have very good musical memory. If a composer who is in possession of true creative originality comes to realize that learning scores for conducting really inhibits his/her expression of that originality, he/she will simply stop conducting. And if that composer is a true original, he/she will surely notice such things fairly quickly.

          • M2N2K It’s funny, but reading your opinion and it immediately seemed sensible, and I think it’s right, but at the same time something occurred to me that was not far from what Minacciosa was getting at. While I still don’t think that having a deep contact with other music in itself would inhibit one’s creativity, I do think that the constant expenditure of energy working in front of orchestras and audiences is very exhausting.

            A conductor is either preparing new scores, relearning old ones, working with an orchestra and performing, and then recovering from the effort. That leaves no chance to clear one’s ming and to regain the energy to work creatively. So, I take back much of my disagreement with Minacciosa to say – yes, a composer’s life has to be – to some extent, at least – a separate lifestyle than a conductor – at least one who’s constantly working. But I think that also goes for composers who earn a living by diving into some other energy-depleting field.

          • Well, but that is a completely separate issue. Of course we all should know our limitations in terms of spending energy, physical as well as mental. But in that sense we might just say that it would be difficult to be successful in creating many truly original musical compositions while at the same time pursuing a busy career as a professional soccer/football player. This kind of statement has absolutely nothing to do with conducting per se.

          • I’m not sure it is because a conductor who is exhausted from his/her work still has all that music he/she has been making his/her own swimming around in his/her head. I don’t see why that would be true of a football player after a match. But I still think a more persuasive argument is simply statistical. The percentage of truly original/imaginative composers in any population is always extremely tiny.

          • And yet, if you ask most conductors/composers about it – and I worked with and talked to several of them – they will invariably say that conducting actually informs and helps their composing because with careful planning and reasonable distribution of time positives far outweigh negatives in combining the two activities. The “tiny percentage” is such an obvious point that it is not even worth mentioning.

  • It’s sounds like the love child of Prokofiev and Cole Porter – Alternating between the finale of the 2nd Sonata and Broadway. Well, Prokofiev lived for a while in a hotel on Seventh Avenue near 57th Street, a block or so away from Broadway, so why not. I found it entertaining – and there’s no reason to get snooty about it. There’s LOTS worse out there.

  • The beginning and the end are just a bad copy of Hamelin Toccata (Etude) and the middle part is (a little bit better) copy of some F.Say stuff. But that’s ok. Nobody seriously expects originality in this case. It’s just ‘junk food’ , some Encore to make a bombastic effect. Bravo Kissin.

  • I always feel kind of sorry for successful instrumentalists who also write music. They are in an awkward situation. On one hand, they have a certain advantage: they can program and perform their own music. But, on the other hand, their repute as performers usually casts a dark, obscuring shadow over their compositional efforts. I remember interviewing Trifonov a few years ago, and listening to him tell me about his devotion to composing. And I thought, “Surely winning a Gold Medal for piano at the Tchaikovsky Competition is the worst strategy for becoming a successful composer anyone ever devised.”

    • It is possible though. People like Prokofiev (in his young years), Mahler and Rachmaninoff combined a successful career as conductor/instrumentalist with composing pieces that are still loved until this day. Good planning is essential.

  • Back to Marc-André Hamelin: his Toccata on “L’homme armé” was a hit at the Van Cliburn (where it was the imposed piece). Twenty-one of 30 contestants played it from memory. Brisk sales of the Peters edition at the Cliburn gift shop. Mari Kodama (one of the jurors) told me she plans to add it to her repertoire.

    • It’s a bit of a dangerous name. I know of a concert hall programmer who was asked by a young, very beautifuil eastern-European violinist after her performance, in the soloist room: “Do you like Kissin’?” which led to a conversation with some quite embarrassing moments and a slap in the face.

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