Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.
This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Pianist magazine.
The idea first came to me on a tour a few months back, when a confluence of circumstances resulted in my lugging about 6 kilograms of music scores in my suitcase. The sight of that stack filled me with melancholy, which not even the wonderfully diverse musical content of the scores managed to fully dispel. I could have all of these—actually, all the scores I owned; indeed all the scores there were!—on a tablet, I thought. Constantly available (no more FedExing in case of cancellations), and so light! Tablets nowadays were badass and big-screened, and surely there were myriads of apps to cover any musician’s needs.
Playing with Ben Beilman at the Wigmore a few weeks later sealed the deal. Ben played from an iPad Pro and had a light and noiseless Bluetooth pedal with which he turned pages, seemingly effortlessly. (He also seemingly effortlessly blazed through the most difficult bits of Prokofiev’s 1st Sonata, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that appearances could be deceiving.) I did a bit of research, put aside my traditionalist doubts and got myself:
I avoided downloading games; this would be a serious work device.
iPad and Pencil and apps all worked flawlessly from the first day. So did the pedal—while I was practising at home. The first time I used that pedal in public—a small chamber music performance—I discovered that my leg had a tendency of not staying put over the pedal like a well-behaved leg should, but rather of wilfully moving around and of later not quite finding the exact spot at the right moment. I also discovered that trying to move the pedal into a better position with my foot simply flipped the pedal over (as it had helpful anti-slip strips glued to it to prevent it from moving), and that trying to flip it back with my foot while playing was a not-completely-pleasant experience. This resulted in some stress and in my having to turn a few pages by tapping on the iPad’s screen while playing.
But nobody seemed to have noticed anything, so I got emboldened to take my relationship with the iPad to the next level. That happened in Brussels, in an all-Shostakovich programme with the Pavel Haas Quartet (incredible musicians and very dear friends); a sold-out concert which—lest it be too easy—was also broadcast live on the radio. "If not now, when?" I thought, copycatting Hillel’s saying, and gallantly declined the offer of a page turner. I had by that time used the pedal in all our rehearsals and felt reasonably secure in my leg’s responding to the ‘stay’ command.
The 2nd Trio started well: first movement—fine; the scherzo—fine including the scary breakneck passage towards the end which I had practised, hands and feet, and found out that I had to time the page turn with a left hand note to avoid problems (same realization I had during my organ studies at university: the left hand and left foot are strongly tied together); third movement—fine. Then came the finale, one of Shostakovich’s most powerful musical moments: a Jewish dance, starting out quiet and personal and gradually growing to a series of horrendous climaxes, which transform the tune’s character into a Totentanz, a dance of death. The three successive climaxes, each bigger and heavier than the previous one, can be tremendous in their impact—a torrent of raw emotion, grief and anger and loss, all locked into the immutable dance tune, which by the last climax sounds more like wailing than anything else. The last thing you can do while playing it all in a concert (as I found out) is think of your left leg.
After these climaxes the unbearable pain finds release in a whirl of passages on the piano, first repeating the eight chords of the third movement’s passacaglia, and then playing finger-breaking figurations in the right hand while the left hand participates in a three-voice canon with the violin and the cello—a full repeat of the Trio’s opening. Shostakovich thus brings the whole piece together, a moment of emotional and structural genius. And at that moment I realize that my leg has long ago abandoned the pedal, can’t find it, and, having found it, is obviously pressing on the wrong spot, since the pages would not turn! I jab at the pedal with desperation—it turns 4 pages at once. I need to turn them back, but I can’t easily judge the distance between the right and left pedal buttons, so I’m groping around with my foot, and it all takes time. And all the while, both hands are frantically playing. Finally, the feet and the hands meet halfway through the passage. The ensuing coda, with its grotesque parallel fifths in the piano and skeletal bone-rattling col legno accompaniment in the violin and cello has never sounded darker or more menacing to me.
This was not the end of that concert’s adventures, though the two in the Piano Quintet had nothing to do with technology. The first took place in the fourth movement, which opens with a beautiful duo for violin and cello, later joined by the viola. It’s deeply personal and sad, almost heart-rending in its restraint. After this long section, the string pass the melody to the piano, and in that moment, about a bar before my entrance, there comes an indignant shout, no, two, from the audience. A man’s voice, though I can’t make out the words. Thoughts in rapid succession, just as I begin playing: political activism; or—much worse—someone was taken ill; how bad it is?; do I stop?; but I can’t stop–the music can’t stop; but isn’t it inhuman not to stop?; how bad would it need to be for me to stop?… By that time two bars have passed, there are no more shouts, and I keep playing, concentration snapping tightly into place, as if to help the music draw attention away from the incident and back to itself. Shostakovich helps: the right hand depicts two voices in stratospheric heights, circling and echoing each other in a plaintive lament, over a measured, inescapable beat in the left hand.
We never found out what actually happened.
As a finishing touch, in the last movement, a mosquito lazily flew into my field of view and—"No, you don’t!" I thought savagely—alighted on my right hand. It (or probably she?) sat there calmly for a moment, while my brain fast-forwarded a few seconds to her having a light supper of me. We were at that time in the most hushed, eerie passage of the finale, which the Pavel Haas Quartet play in a ghostly, nearly-not-there-and-yet-amazingly-captivating pianississimo sound. It takes a concentrated effort to match under the best circumstances, and having a mosquito on my hand did not help at all. Nor did the fact that I was in that exact moment attempting to press the left piano pedal with my right foot (seeing as the left foot was occupied with the iPad). During a long note, I tried to make the mosquito fly away by moving my hand—zero effect. Then I shooed it away with my left hand; it took off, only to land on the piano lid. There it sat, lit by golden stage lights, against a black background, reflected in the high-gloss polyester finish—a macro shot worthy of a photo competition. I knocked it off its perch and it finally flew away (relief mixed with regret at the missed shot). The remaining bars of the finale passed without incident.
So did the next three concerts of the tour. I was growing more confident and would sometimes even allow the leg to briefly leave its pedal position. And then, four days after Brussels, despite having been recently charged, the pedal’s battery died one hour before the concert and just would not charge back. But that is another story.
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