Krystian Zimerman, Polish superpianist, declared—before his final piece at a recital at Disney hall in Los Angeles on Sunday evening, April 26—that he was never coming back to the U.S. Our military is trying to take over the world, etc. etc. Some audience members walked out, tossing obscenities at him (he lobbed an insult or two back), more cheered, there was tumultuous applause for his final piece (Szymanowski variations), no encore, finis. Exeunt Krystian Zimerman and his Steinway. News item here, full review of the concert here, post-mortem here.
I am of two minds on this. I was taught that one never, ever, ever insults an audience or makes them uncomfortable, and making this kind of statement is, in a sense, holding them responsible for the policies of the Bush administration. To then mock those departing—“Yes, some people, when they hear the word military, start marching” is really provocative as hell. Zimerman is an artist I admire deeply and I, had I been in the audience might well have fired something nasty back at him at that point, perhaps something to do with murderous Polish behaviors in the 1930s and 40s, or Polish disposition to march when the commands are being offered by Hitler or the Soviets. I can further imagine being torn limb from limb for having done something like that, so the fact that I would have severed all good relations with Polish friends (who have been generous with their time and help) would have meant little to me… bleeding to death as I would have been. Probably ’twas a far, far better thing that I wasn’t in the audience, but I know myself well enough (I was short of self-control in class even in graduate school) that I might well have shot off my mouth—and, to be honest, throwing ignoble Polish behaviors in the pianist’s face would not have been an inappropriate response to his decision to rub Bush policies in the faces of a bunch of admiring angeleno concertgoers.
In any case, it was odd that he would choose to enact this bit of theater now that Obama is in office and so many things are changing; indeed, he spoke approvingly of Obama in Berkeley, where he had performed shortly before. There had been some build-up, over the years, chronicled in the Los Angeles Times pieces linked above. The only real explanation is one offered in the LA Times, via Zimerman’s manager Mary Pat Buerkle, is that this had been some time in coming, that Zimerman had been increasingly unhappy with the circumstances of touring in the U.S. Here a particular anecdote comes to mind, one of which I was unaware until now.
Shortly after 9/11, when Zimerman entered the U.S. on tour with his personal Steinway, U.S. officials (Customs? Homeland Security?) thought the glue smelled funny and, suspicious that he might have been smuggling in explosives (!?), destroyed the instrument.
Destroyed the instrument. Let me explain. To musicians, instruments are living things. Even those who would not go so far as to say the sort of thing quoted on Zimerman’s wikipedia entry—“My friendship with the Steinway piano is one of the most important and beautiful things in my life”—we have all had the experience of people coming to us after performances, in tears, transformed, etc. etc. Yes, it was the music that reached them, and if we have any sense we acknowledge that we personally did not have all that much to do with it. But to the violinist with his Guarneri or Strad, or the guitarist with his classic Martin or Stratocaster, or Zimerman with his Steinway, that is a living thing, an object miraculously fashioned of star-stuff that can be animated to the point where it communicates directly to listeners’ souls. I don’t think I exaggerate much; it is akin to how Jews traditionally think about books and scrolls: most certainly not just inanimate objects (hence our reactions to book-burning; that means far more to us even than it looks like). Rock aficionados should consult John Hiatt’s “Perfectly Good Guitar” if they’re skeptical of my point here; that song is a cri de coeur roughly equal to Clapton’s “Layla,” and it addresses just the subject at hand. So here’s Zimerman with his beloved Steinway, and the U.S. geniuses—taking a break from renaming pommes frites “freedom fries,” perhaps, or putting up “if you ain’t a patriot you’re a SCUD” posters—destroy his piano.
Since then, Zimerman has chosen to return to the U.S., and now he apparently travels with his piano in pieces, which he reassembles (something I find unimaginable). I can readily see, though, that such a thuggish act of wanton destruction—needless cruelty, in an artist’s view—would burn away at someone like Zimerman. Finally, I imagine, he had had enough, though probably the pressures were building up more from within than without: all auguries in the good old U. S. of A. are that we’ve turned back from the moral precipice, governmentally speaking, and are hell-bent on reassuming moral leadership, reestablishing the rule of law, reassuming our responsibilities to our citizens and those of the world, and so on. It makes no sense for Zimerman to flip us what Bruce Springsteen calls “the New Jersey state bird” now, unless this is a long-term buildup of rage and resentment.
I really have no great conclusion. Krystian Zimerman is entitled to do what he likes; I continue to admire his artistry, which is equaled by very, very few other musicians. I hope he decides to return here at some point. (Since he has returned since the post-9/11 debacle I have to conclude that he decided that return trips would be commercially adavantageous to him.) All that said, I also think that he was very wrong to allow his feelings to boil over at a bunch of people who had come to be mended and improved by his music, who had paid premium for the privilege, and who had little or nothing to do with Cheney/Rove/Bush (in order of importance) policies. I have never found artists (or humanities scholars, even) to be deep thinkers, politically—Zimerman or the Dixie Chicks or plenty of other historical examples, so their principled stands can sometimes end up looking a bit…well, simpleminded. So, while acknowledging his heartfelt feelings, I—proudly American, despite whatever criticisms I choose to level at my government and fellow citizens—would probably been among those bellowing insults back at him. Yet he who[se country] is sinless cast the first stone; it is intellectually so lazy so say something like “your military is trying to take over the world,” now, that however heartfelt this seems like a petty, theatrical display. Whether Mr. Zimerman returns or not, I’m sure there will still be interest in his playing, but given his choice to make that kind of exit—cape billowing, nose in the air—if this was the final chapter there may not be a lot of mourning here, even among pianists.