Thursday, 15 January 2009

THE ART OF AUTOGRAPHS (Part 1)

This article was first published in the July 2008 issue of BraviSSimO!,
the newsletter of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Autograph sessions with visiting soloists and artists are now a norm at SSO concerts. Why do concertgoers take the trouble of waiting in line? What exactly are the musicians’ scribbles on paper worth? Which artists give the best autographs?
Mischa Maisky's autograph is as big as his cello sound.

“Touched” by greatness

Ever yearned for an autograph from David Beckham, Robert de Niro, Tiger Woods or Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew? Yes, the thought can be quite a tantalising one, especially when the subject concerned is a celebrity. Owning a “part” of someone famous – even something infinitesimally insignificant – can be seen as one way we ordinary mortals aspire to “rub shoulders” with greatness.

Now that sounds preposterous, but that’s how the world works. Why else did we get Lisztomania, Beatlemania or Wrestlemania? 19th century ladies swooning before divine artistry, screaming groupies falling for the Fab Four, and rabid fans baying for Vince McMahon’s blood represent one end on the spectrum of idol worship. Autograph collecting is merely a more dignified way of expressing admiration and sometimes adulation.
Leila does everything in one stroke
SSO’s collaborations with international artists bring many of classical music’s luminaries to Singapore, within reach of fans. Prior to these well-organised queues, minded by Esplanade’s people-in-black and sometimes the police, autograph collecting meant waiting outside musty stage doors, dressing chambers and green rooms. The assembly-line efficiency of today has also replaced the more friendly banter that takes place between artist and audience member. “Thank you for the music” or “we loved your Beethoven” is always music to the ears of performers, and the autograph - an imprint of an icon – is a just reward for the appreciation shown.
Evelyn Glennie has visited Singapore many times,
hence many opportunities for autographs.

Of sentimental value

How much is an autograph worth? Some years ago, I noticed at the New York Philharmonic’s gift shop a CD autographed by Kurt Masur selling at USD 20. The un-autographed copy went for USD 16. So is the great German maestro’s signing worth only four dollars? In actual fact, such autographs are probably worth much less than that. However, the memories that come with getting the autograph are priceless; the setting, the circumstances and the short words exchanged – all these have some personal sentimental value, even if it means nothing to everybody else. This is why one should always try to get an autograph personally, rather than by proxy.
In 1994, the great Russian pianist Shura Cherkassky (above) autographed for me a book about pianists, on the page which bore a photograph of himself and fellow students with their teacher Josef Hofmann. He took a pause while scrutinising that pic and then sighed, “They’re all dead now. I’m the only one left.” One year later, he was to be united with the class. The Hungarian Gy├Ârgy Sandor – with his larger-than-life autograph that got smaller as the years went by – shared with me how as a young pianist, he was approached to give the world premiere of Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto. Another Hungarian, Bela Siki – who prints his name very simply and modestly – recounted how electric fans installed on the stage of a 1960s Victoria Memorial Hall kept flying insects from interfering with his performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor!

Carlo's Curls

Mutter knows best

Barry Tuckwell's lovely cursive

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