ArtsWatch guest post: Kill the piano recital

Reinventing classical piano performance for the 21st century


Editor’s note: One of Oregon’s most valuable classical music convocations, Portland International Piano Festival, opens today at Portland’s World Forestry Center. ArtsWatch asked iconoclastic Portland pianist Maria Choban, who’s been trying to bring classical music into the 21st century for at least 20 years, to offer her ideas about what’s wrong with the standard way of presenting classical piano music and how it might change in order to win new audiences. We also asked Harold Gray, the longtime head of the festival’s sponsor, Portland Piano International, to respond, and we’ll run his reply as soon as he submits it.

Maria Choban performing
at Classical Revolution PDX’s five-year
anniversary concert in May.
Photo: Gary Stallworth

This spring, I helped adjudicate a competition for young Oregon classical instrumentalists. The festivities launched with a concert featuring the previous year’s medalists. The silver medalist opened the entire show.

Enter 10-year-old John with his pint-sized violin. Enter the reincarnation of the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh.

Now, I am against marching out waves of under-aged, stage-mothered urchins onto concert stages and into competitions. I grew up under those circumstances (with a stage-grandmother), and I can tell you IT SUCKS! Say bye-bye to any chance of a normal childhood – particularly if you’re a child who loves playing outdoors. And I’m not talking about playing the piano there.

Apart from over- and I’m sure mis-identifying with the poor urchins being marched out on stage, I find particularly distasteful this penchant we audience voyeurs have for wanting to be astonished over wanting to be moved. My friend Peter Brownlee, piano instructing guru extraordinaire, lent me this phrase of French composer Francois Couperin’s over dinner one night: “I would rather move the listener than amaze him.”

I sometimes feel that our near-insecure reliance on established interpretations and quantitative bravura exist because we want to amaze our peers or experts with our virtuosity — to be accepted, rather than move our audience with our own brave, vulnerable and well-thought-out (and researched) interpretations, which will often if not always put us out there on a fragile limb.

John, the 10-year-old violinist, MOVED me. With his astute phrasing and his rich sound (I kept eying the size of the violin and comparing it to the richness of his tone), John grabbed my shoulders, shook me hard and screamed “LISTEN!” He was relentless, leaving me breathless. I could hardly wait to hear who won the gold medal.

You guessed it. The judges obviously wanted to be astonished more than they wanted to be moved. Within 10 seconds I was bored with the gold medalist, whose fingers were extraordinary but typewriterish, whose body language gave nothing away – no joy, no sorrow, just grind. . . . My mind drifted over to the plight of Classical Piano Recitals.

When was the last time I heard live the kind of gut-wrenching phrasing of this 10-year-old? Astonishment demands good craftsmanship: Yngwie Malmsteen – a faster, more accurate, shiny hard guitarist never existed. Do we know or care whether or not he’s still alive? In classical music, substitute Marc Andre Hamelin.

Moving me entails possessing copious amounts of artistry (which encompasses good craftsmanship): Jimi Hendrix – blazing fast and accurate with the soul of a pained addict and the ability to share his pain and his world. Do we mourn him daily? For classical music fans, substitute Martha Argerich.

Craftsmanship is temporal, yesterday’s news, a slavish commitment to today’s fashion – which happens to be bravura virtuosity. Artistry is forever.

When did we as an audience lose sight of the bigger picture? The magic, mysterious something beyond craftsmanship?

I stay away from piano recitals. In fact, I stay away from damn near all classical music concerts. I’ve taken the bait more times than I care to let on of how much of a sucker I am, falling for hip posters and enticing advertisements.

I quote from Proper Discord’s first blog article below – a now-extinct blog that I consider to be the best ever on classical music (written by an anonymous big-name mucky-muck in the industry) and I don’t see it ever being surpassed despite that it ran for only two years:

“I love classical music, and I certainly don’t think it’s evidence of superior aesthetic sensibilities on my part. I’m going to take a leaf out of Freud’s book and assume that I’m not freakishly weird and that while they might not like to admit it, other people also probably:

  1. Get bored about half way through most concerts, even when the performers are completely legendary
  2. Read the program notes during the second half, when the novelty of the music has worn off, only to find that they add nothing the experience
  3. Grudgingly have to admit that how moving a performance is has very little to do with how much you know about the repertoire
  4. Tell everybody afterwards that it was fantastic, even though you were secretly wishing it would end about two hours ago

There are so many concerts taking place today, so many recordings being made, that the act of performing great works of art has become commonplace and ordinary. Orchestras and soloists alike phone in underrehearsed and over-precise interpretations. The biggest challenge for the classical music world today is restoring a sense of wonder at these extraordinary works of art. If we can build that, they will come. . ..”

I wish I could get excited about piano recitals. I even went so far as to scope out the three recitals at this summer’s Portland International  Piano Festival — all featuring name-brand pianists. I just cannot get myself worked up enough to attend these gigs, much less write anything entertaining about them. Do I really need or want to hear two of these three performers cover four Beethoven sonatas AGAIN? Am I really going to hear something different or more important, MOVING? Why can’t we bring former Bang on a Can pianist Lisa Moore out here to play Don Byron’s Etudes (which she commissioned), which were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and which she plays so sexily that even I, a confirmed heterosexual, would sleep with her?

Portland Piano International
artistic director Harold Gray
retires this summer.

I’m really good with the underground. I’m willing to go to something (to a LOT of somethings) that are untried, sound weird, might be total flops. But this is like trying to get it up for a bunch of Stepford wives when your tastes run to seriously bad girls.

The good news is that there is hope for solo piano performances, including here in Portland. The last time I attended a piano recital, artistic director Harold Gray brought Hauschka to Portland rock club Doug Fir Lounge as part of Portland Piano International’s series in May. It was done so right even the little old lady sitting on my left was rocking out!  Never mind the young hip crowd standing in the back, boisterously punctuating with excited whoops the pianist’s cool riffs on the prepared instrument.

And what is “Done Right”? Basically it comes down to anachronism – let’s get rid of it. What are our 21st century sounds and rhythms? Let’s live them in our concert halls. Let’s have fewer museums full of Beethoven and mindless virtuosity and more music galleries full of Hauschka, Lisa Moore and Don Byron, emulating more the visual arts model that seems to be thriving at least here in Portland.

And now I have to gush. Harold Gray is a visionary who’s never taken himself seriously, who with sincere graciousness and sparkling warm humor makes us all feel like we have a voice and a right to say what we want to see and hear in this town – and then he hunts it down and brings it to us.

He has done this for 35 years at PPI because it is what he’s wanted to see and hear as well. Here’s to the good guys. I’m going to miss him like crazy now that he’s retiring, but I know his baby, Portland Piano International, will be in good hands with the next fearless leader chosen.

Maria Choban performs often in Portland and blogs at

4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    overall, what we have here is a strong article by a strong pianist with a strong personality. thanx to arts watch for running it – even though the final 2 gush-laden paragraphs seem to essentially contradict much of what appears before them.

    but, quibbling aside, droogies, MC has a real clue & i sincerely thank her for doing her part to “walk her talk” – or is that “play her bray!”


  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    That’s funny. I’ve always assumed the people reading the program notes in the second half of piano recitals were people dragged there by their spouses, not jaded industry desk jockeys aching to get to their next snootful of cocaine and spewing out blog posts that I DISAGREE WITH 300%!!! At least that numbered list – WTF is up with that? That NEVER happens to me, EVER. (Although to be completely honest I might agree somewhat with #3 if I could disentangle its tortured syntax.) Maybe it’s because I never go to a concert just because a big name is performing. (OK, I”ll make an exception for Dawn Upshaw.) I always go to a concert because I love much of what’s being played, or I don’t know it and I’m (very) curious about it. Am I disappointed sometimes? Sure. So what? Am I overwhelmed sometimes? Yes, and that’s the point. Who would have thought yet another performance of that cellist’s warhorse, Brahms op. 38, could possibly upstage a Schoenberg-inspired chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Yet that’s exactly what happened when Colin Carr and Anne-Marie McDermott played it at Chamber Music NW some years ago. Something utterly unique in my decades-long CMNW concert experience happened – they got a standing ovation at intermission, after the short half! To this day I’m not sure how they did this, but it felt like all the beauty and the wisdom of the world was flowing off that stage, and the tears were dripping off my beard – sorry, too much information! If I have to go to TEN concerts that sometimes impress, sometimes disappoint, and only sometimes move to get one experience like that, I will in a heartbeat. That’s my cocaine I guess.

    Here’s another example. Marilyn Nonken played the Ives Concord Sonata at the summer piano festival several years ago, and played the hell out of it. It shimmered in my memory for long afterwards. A few years later Jeremy Denk came and played it. Been there, done that, right? Wrong – it was a revelation! I don’t think I’ve ever in my life heard such a complex work played with such a combination of clarity and passion. (I’m afraid Maestro Kalish, as highly as I think of him, is following along an unusually challenging path tonight. Am I going? YOU BET!)

    With all that off my chest, I’m actually largely in agreement with Maria (truly, truly a local treasure as Bob says) where she speaks for herself, particularly about that gold and silver winner – how many, many times at competitions of various sorts have I felt the second place winner was the best, and for exactly the reason she describes. And also, though I am one who has no problem with traditional piano recitals, I’m also perfectly happy to go to a whole range of untraditional piano performances. The logistics don’t matter, as long as I can be moved. Let’s have ’em! Maria’s last concert at the Francis St. Community Music Center was a great example – one hour, no intermission, donation only, rock ’em, sock ’em, we had a blast!

  3. redipen says:

    ‘prodigy’ discipline, as Choban suggests can rob one of a childhood, maybe produce a dull person – clearly not in her case – or a neurotic basket case – don’t know her well enough to comment

    but, whatever is one’s life clearly informs ones art – getting out into the ‘real’ world might do more for ones interpretation of Beethoven than drilling Hanon Finger Exercises hours on end – then again, it just might get one into trouble

  4. Elizabeth says:


    You express your views eloquently, but the same classical music concerts that are old hat to you may be new and exciting to others, particularly to young people. Last summer I accompanied a group of students from the Pacific Crest Youth Sinfonietta to a Chamber Music Northwest concert so they could hear a baroque violin concerto that the Sinfonietta had been playing. I don’t remember which concerto it was, and I probably wouldn’t have walked across the street to hear it for myself, but the excitement of the students was contagious, the performance was excellent, and we all had a great evening.

    I think it’s great to bring classical music into new venues, and I’m one hundred percent in favor of performances of new music, but I don’t believe that means we have to kill the traditional concert.

    I am particularly pleased to see recitals such as this afternoon’s PPIF “In Good Hands” recital, where local piano students will be playing pieces by local composers at 4:00 pm at the World Forestry Center. No Clementi sonatinas on this concert. (Fair disclosure: I wrote one of the pieces on the program.)

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