International Piano - July/August 2021 - Written by Jerome Rose

Decoding greatness

It is quite ironic that this question plagues everyone that has practiced the piano, both amateur and professional alike, with very little that has actually been written to answer this question. Yes, there are biographers and reviewers galore that write about specific performances, recordings, and videos, but few that actually attempt to penetrate the essence of the question.

In fact, the question itself is somewhat impossible to answer; and no simple listing of the elements of a performance can capture what constitutes greatness. It starts in music with a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a movement, a piece, a performance, and inevitably morphs into a concert season and a lifetime. The aspiration that exists in any true artist is the desire to achieve the moment or moments of synthesis in performance that create a transcendental meaning or response; some moment of execution of “Mind, Body & Spirit” that the Romantics understood so well.

It all starts with talent, training, exposure, culture, history and experience. There is also the necessity within the individual at an early age to aspire to some greater height that gives meaning to their work. So much depends on parents and teachers to instill in the child these values. The basic character of the creative youth is truly what needs to be nurtured to carry this formidable development through to a positive end. Obviously, there can be a great cost to everyone involved in carrying these responsibilities through a lifetime where so many fail.

Every accomplished pianist knows the drudgery of exercise, self-criticism, trial and error, the inconsistencies of performance and audience response and the daily grind of maintaining a high professional standard. Every pianist in the world knows this. As well, every pianist in the world is constantly striving for “something more”.

The difficulty is knowing what that “something more” is. That is why I ask students, “what constitutes a great pianist”? Surprisingly few have thought about this or can reasonably answer the question in a meaningful way. But nevertheless, this question needs to be asked in order to define that which the student is striving to achieve. Truly, if there is any guide from all the great historical pianists, there has to be something in common with all of them.

I would say, in the most simple terms, that what they all have in common is that eternal commitment to art and to the life of the artist. It is that dedication to the higher ideal and the higher purpose in their life that we are witness to in their work. The unwillingness to compromise and the complete willingness to dedicate their lives to their art. This dedication allows their inner life and intellectual life to continue to grow and flourish. It is a basic philosophy, within their reality, which includes countless hours of work and their almost religious commitment to their art.

One of my personal sayings that I truly feel in performance is that “the tones have to reverberate off the membrane of your soul”. The sense of message has to be there at all times. Also, that sense of purpose that engages an audience and brings them into the aural sensory world of the performer: that ability to communicate where the interpretation of the music is so profound that, even if one disagrees, you are swept up in the intensity of the performance supported by the collective energy of the audience. There is such conviction within the performance that you cannot be distracted or look away.

Such words as charisma, communication, sound, intensity all lead to a transcendental experience – a place in time that an audience member will never forget. I believe that this is “what constitutes a great pianist”.

It is not a matter of reputation, audience kudos or even publicity. It is what happens on stage that makes you remember that moment in the years to come. The pianist creating these transcendental moments can only be measured through the totality of a night, a season or a lifetime. Very few artists have been able to sustain a career on this level. Quite simply, we need to be and can only be grateful for the moment.

If the pianist succeeds in creating this lasting moment, he or she is truly, “ A Great Pianist”.

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