Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Modern-day Mozarts

Alexander Malofeev

If you gave birth to a child prodigy, what course would you take? If he or she has the talent of a Mozart, would you tie your child to the piano bench and make them practice their Czerny exercises till their fingers bled? Would you ignore your other children so you could devote all your time to your little genius?

Putting the questions that way, I reveal the American bias toward allowing children to grow up healthy and happy, to play in the sand at the beach and develop friends to hang out with at the mall. We don’t do it the way they do in authoritarian countries, like China and Korea and Russia and the countries of the former Soviet bloc, where kids with special talent are sometimes even removed from their families and raised in boarding schools to become Olympic athletes.

A reasonable person, I assume, would want to have the best of both worlds. By all means nurture the genius, but not destroy the psyche of a growing child. Get it right. There’s got to be a balance if you try hard enough.

I’ve been listening for some time now to the magnificent displays of child prodigies. Two in particular, a Georgian kid named Sandro Nebieridze and a Russian kid named Alexander Malofeev. There are many more out there, and my fondness for these two is probably because they have the right kind of promoters who push them out there for the public to ooh and ah over and get them thousands of followers on Facebook and YouTube.

Once again, YouTube, you magnificent creation of the gods. Up there with chocolate and macadamia nuts for the quality you’ve given to my life in recent times.

What are you doing this coming Saturday night? If you happen to be in Tbilisi, you might want to 
take in a concert by სანდრო ნებიერიძე - that’s the aforementioned Sandor Nebieridze if your Georgian is not up to snuff. He’s playing with Tbilisi’s two other young Mozarts, სანდრო გეგეჭკორი (Sandro Gegechkori) and გიორგი გიგაშვილი (Giorgi Gigashvili).

Tbilisi is a city of some million and a half people, i.e., roughly the size in population of Phoenix, San Antonio or San Diego, yet it has not one, not two, but three young Mozarts. (It may have more, but my familiarity with Tbilisi is definitely limited.) All things being equal, you don’t get results like that without some tying to the piano bench. It doesn’t happen without years of discipline. The hands have to learn to think independently of the brain, have to develop a kinetic sense of where to go when the fingers are flying at the speed of light. Even if you’re born to perform at the age of three and compose at the age of five, you still need to polish the talent with discipline.

On the other side of the argument – and there is one – is the fact that if you see these guys in action, it’s clear they enjoy what they’re doing. There’s a wonderful video of the three of them horsing around (which I can’t seem to find at the moment, but it’s out there), and if any of them feels handicapped they’re not showing it. Here are the two Sandros of that trio in their Santa Claus uniforms playing a jazzed up Libertango in front of what I take it is Yamaha’s Tbilisi outlet – and you get a glimpse into how these young folks get to advance their careers.  

Here they are again, somewhat younger, playing with violinist Kote Eroyan,  and if you haven’t fallen in love with Georgian boys by this stage you’ve got a cold dead heart.

I was going to list the performances I’ve been listening to all week, but there are just too many of them. You can find them easily enough if you search YouTube. Here’s just a sample:

Sandro Nebieridze (born 2001, Georgia)
1.     Age 14 – Astana Piano Passion 2015 (4 years ago):
2.     Age 9 - Debussy, “Children’s Corner” (8 years ago):

Sandro Gegechkori (born 2000, Georgia)

Giorgi Gigashvili (no bio information available that I was able to find)

And I can’t be 100% sure it’s our Giorgi, but here’s a Giorgi Gigashvili singing in Swahili with a bunch of other Georgian kids six years ago.  [Excuse the tangent, I just can’t help it: here’s that same song, Malaika, which one of the commenters identified as the most popular song in the Swahili language, sung in an African context.]

But back to the whiz kids.

Just because the Russians and the Georgians are not on the best of terms these days, (Georgians are trying to replace Russian with English as their first foreign language and 77% of them voted in 2008 to join NATO) it doesn’t mean that I have any less love for Russian prodigies. Well, the one I mentioned above, at least – perhaps the cutest little tow-head ever to come down the pike, Alexander Malofeev.

And to get real about just how seriously talented these kids are, have a listen to Sandro Nebieridze and Alexander playing Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Sandro and Alexander both entered the Grand Piano competition in Moscow in 2016, in which the prize was $5000 and a grand piano. The sponsor, Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, was so impressed, clearly recognizing that they were both so clearly top of the line, that he awarded them both the $5000 prize and bought an extra piano out of his own money. And don’t miss the encore – Variations on a Theme by Paganini.

A brief discursion here, to make the point that not all Mozarts are boys. Watch the little fingers fly on another finalist in the Grand Prize Piano Competition in Moscow in 2018, Alexandra Dovgan

This journey started for me when I chanced on Alexander Malofeev playing Rachmaninoff  and was blown away. There are over 50 YouTube videos available of his performances, and I hesitate to keep linking you to ones I’ve chanced upon, figuring you can discover them for yourself if you’re interested. It’s a great way to spend a rainy January afternoon in California. Or any other day, of course.

Look at the expression on his beautiful face. This teenager. I can’t imagine he fits the description of a kid whose youth was ripped out from under him just so he could satisfy the ego of a helicopter mom or a nation seeking international glory at the expense of their children’s welfare. I could be all wrong, but I think it’s a big world, filled with different kinds of people. I think there are some of us who, like me, didn’t practice their Czerny because they lacked the discipline, and didn’t have the special talent to begin with. And there are others – and Alexander has to be is in this number – who were simply born to inspire the world with magnificent performances of the world’s best composers.

Happy rainy day afternoons to you all.

OK. Just one more. You might conclude that Mozart wrote this piece for Three Steinways and Two Page Turners to be played lickety-split, but actually it’s his Piano Concerto No. 7 ,which he arranged to be played by a certain Countess Lodron and her two daughters, Aloysia and Giuseppa.  Performed by young Alex (he’s only fifteen here), another girl genius named Varvara Kutuzova, (who may be as young as 12) and Russia’s current leading concert pianist, Denis Matsuev, donor to kids of grand pianos, mentioned above.  For those of you who appreciate not only the Rachmaninoff stuff for the russkaya dusha (Russian soul), but also the heady and deeply satisfying music of Wolfgang Amadeus – who got us all started on this romp.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

But can he conduct?

"Not a dry eye" time. Two French-Canadian guys. One of them, Pierre Tourville, sings a love song to his lover, who just happens to be the conductor of the orchestra at the Met, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Nézet-Séguin cries not only because of the gesture, but because he knows what it means to Tourville to be joined by his Tourville's hero, Céline Dion.

The story is available in today’s New York Times here if you have a subscription to its digital edition. The song in question, “Quand On N’a Que L’Amour” (“When Love Is All You Have”) is available at the end of the article.

Another glass ceiling is being broken. As the Times article points out, orchestra conducting has been largely the prerogative of straight white males. And how sweet it is. Nézet-Séguin is not the first gay director; he was preceded by Leonard Bernstein and James Levine, both exceptionally gifted musicians who kept their homosexuality a secret. In Bernstein’s case, it was an open secret but he made it clear he was going to play the straight game if that was the only way he'd get the job. Levine followed the pattern of so many Catholic priests whose stunted sexuality twisted them into becoming sexual abusers.

What a joy it is to see an openly gay man publicly acknowledging his lover and sharing his happiness with the world. Tourville is not primarily a singer. His instrument is the viola. Imagine the sounds you hear bouncing off the walls of their house or apartment.

Watch Nézet-Séguin at work (with soprano Diana Damrau) on a new Traviata and you see how much fun he has with his job. Read another article on him here.

And watch his happiness come through too in this interview with Met General Manager Peter Gelb. 

I used to go regularly to the simulcast performances from the Met which plays in local theaters. Somebody needs to explain to me why I drifted away from that habit. If I hadn't I would have seen the Traviata they're talking about.

What a fantastic pick-me-up.

Such a beautiful world, this world of music. So much talent. So much beauty. So much fun.

Here’s Diana Damrau again, this time singing Leonard Bernstein’s Glitter and Be Gay.

OK. I’ll stop here.

Photo credit: Photo above is grabbed from the New York Times article cited, credited to Jeenah Moon.