Politics in the recital hall

A Polish pianist, shortly after his Meany Hall performance, announces he will no longer play in America

I thought there was something odd about the performance. Krystian Zimerman, one of the leading pianists in the world, announced before playing a Bach Partita at Meany Hall last week (April 21), that he was going to interpolate some music toward the end, as a comment on getting rid of President Bush. (I couldn't detect what it was.) The Bach was eerily mechanical, and when Zimerman finished his program with a tempestuous work by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, he seemed completely drained.

Last night at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, where he repeated the Seattle program, Zimerman shocked his audience when, before the Szymanowski "Variations," he announced that this would be his last performance in America. He made the announcement in what was described as a quiet but angry voice, saying his decision was in protest to America's military policies overseas, adding, "Get your hands off my country." People walked out, while others booed and many more cheered. He then played the Szymanowski work with what Los Angeles Times' critic Mark Swed called "astonishing ferocity." As with the Meany performance, there was no encore despite pleadings from the audience.

Matters cannot have been helped by the problems Zimerman has had with his own Steinway, which he prefers to use in recitals, rather than accepting what the house provides. Swed explains:

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years. He travels with his own Steinway piano, which he has altered himself. But shortly after 9/11, the instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall. Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands. He also drives the truck himself when he carries his instrument from city to city over land, as he did after playing a recital in Berkeley on Friday.

Meany Hall's director Matt Krashan reports that Zimerman's personal piano arrived in a U-Haul, and that Zimerman "was a perfect gentleman" while in Seattle, working very hard and playing a very fine program for his Meany Hall debut. Krashan noted that Zimerman had further difficulties with getting his piano in the country in 2006, when authorities held up its release for four weeks. He also has a reputation for last minute cancellations and other prima donna behavior. Nor is politics a stranger to classical music, particularly in Poland, as critic Swed's follow-up article points out.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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