Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A Chetham's Diary: Thursday 23 August 2007

Thursday 23 August

I give BM a well-deserved break from my persistent presence today and head to Bernard Roberts’ studio for my third and final lesson. I played through Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, and he says, “Good. Good. Good…good, but what was all that about?” Thus began the most gruelling lesson of my entire existence. Roberts is ever so patient, and works on every detail, including pedaling (or the absence of it), phrasing, timing, dotted rhythms and achieving the right tonal colour. For the entire hour, witnessed by the Moragoda family from Holland and a few others, we worked on the first five bars of the piece, one of Mozart’s sparest and most modernistic creations. He also remonstrates on the edition that I was using, exhorting me to only use Urtext in the future. Now I feel like a midget, or to put it less brutally, like Christian Slater’s novice character in the presence of Sean Connery’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose.

I am totally grateful to the kindly and saint-like Roberts for exposing my pretension of being a pianist, even for a day. There is so, so much that I don’t know about piano playing, and a lifetime’s worth of hard work awaits whoever decides to call himself or herself a pianist. Humility begins now. I learn that he has had only one Singaporean student ever – the pretty Kim Forster who now lives in Switzerland. And he gladly autographs my CDs of his Beethoven Sonatas, even though they may be Made-in-China fakes that misprint his name as Betnard Roberts.
All smiles after a humbling experience.

With mixed feelings (depressed for obvious reasons, and exhilarated by the fact that there is much more for me to learn), I escape to Forsyth, Manchester’s main music store on Deansgate. There is a wide range of scores here and I blow a hundred quid on music by Eric Coates (By The Sleepy Lagoon, Dambusters March etc.), Siloti (the complete edition on Carl Fischer) and Nikolai Kapustin. About the latter, Auntie Rosie was right; this jazz composer is very specific in his scores. He and the likes of Marc-AndrĂ© Hamelin and Steven Osborne play it straight, yet sound like dyed-in-the-wool, authentic jazzmen.

I wander further, pass the neo-gothic Town Hall till the Manchester City Art Gallery. I was here last year and was enthralled by the gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood collection. Holman Hunt, Millais, Rosetti, Madox Brown et al are well represented here but the painting that captivates me most (besides the female nudes) is Briton Riviere’s In Manus Tuas, Domine (Into Thy Hands, Lord) The scene is that of a mounted knight about to descend into some wooded abyss. His horse is terrified, given its unnatural posture, while the hounds are so cowed to have their tails between their legs. The knight however appears serene, having surrendered his fate into the hands of the Almighty. This is a true portrait of Faith in its purest form. I viewed it again, and found two details I had missed the last time – a flying bat and an owl, certain omens of doom. Such is my fascination with art galleries; I never miss them if I can.

Briton Riviere's masterpiece at the Manchester Art Gallery
My role of tourist continues with a guided tour of Chetham’s Library, the oldest public library in the world. Its one of the truly historic sites of Manchester (and UK for that matter), founded during the Elizabethan era with a 400 pound donation by one Humphrey Chetham. The sandstone building, which houses both the library and Baronial Hall, dates even further back. Needless to say, it’s obviously haunted. The books (mostly Latin tomes) are stored in ceiling-high shelves, all safely locked behind wooden gates, but the attraction is the chained volumes, so secured as to prevent theft. This comes right out of The Name of the Rose and it is said the parts of the Harry Potter saga were filmed here.

Having earlier promised the 17-year-old Blanc Wan that I would record his recital in Baronial Hall on video, I kept my word. He performed a Chinese piece called Sunflower, Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen and Chopin’s Scherzo No.2, and was easily the most accomplished pianist that session. A couple of middle-aged ladies (what BM refers to as Auntie Mollies) played Debussy’s Pagodes and selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, while an 8-year-old darling called Adelaide Yue performed Chopin and Bach. The ladies were, of course, talented amateurs who obviously love what they were doing. One would gladly have them play in church after Sunday service but not pay top dollar to hear them at Wigmore Hall. Adelaide, well, played like a talented ten-year-old.

Two pianists: Blanc Wan and Noriko Ogawa

So what am I driving at? There are two sorts of people who play the piano: pianists and piano-players. Pianists do it as a profession, and strive for the highest possible form of perfection. They practise ceaselessly as a matter of obligation. People pay good money to hear them. Piano-players do it for the fun of it all, and strive for the maximum enjoyment of the experience. They practise as and when they like. I am firmly entrenched (with chains and all) in the latter category, while Blanc (his Cantonese name is a much less glamourous Chun Pong) is slowly but surely transcending into the former category. I do not envy him one bit.

Question: Why does the saying go “Don’t shoot the piano player” rather than “Don’t shoot the pianist”? Answer: Quite possibly the same reason why George Bernard Shaw said, “Hell is full of musical amateurs.”

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