Alban's Blog

China – Country of Food!

When my manager asked me last year if I wanted to play again with two orchestras in China I immediately agreed without knowing repertoire nor orchestra. Please, don’t judge nor blame me, but I agree to locations when I know that I will be fed well – and in China you can eat gloriously well. It is a different story to anything I have experienced in any Chinese restaurant in the rest of the world. Even the food in the “China Towns” of famous city as New York or San Francisco don’t come close to the quality and variety in China itself. And if I have a chance to travel here comfortably, stay in a nice hotel and play some concerts, even get paid for the spending some time in food-heaven, then who cares what piece I have to play?! I just got back from the most delicious dinner in wonderful company, sitting outside right at a lake, tons of Chinese around us (local food, not hotel food, is superior!), temperature to perfection (maybe 25 Celsius with low humidity, slight breeze) and the food to die for.What did I have? OK, let’s see, the main dish was fish-head (oh, I forgot to say that I am not afraid to eat anything, as long as it doesn’t move anymore…), and the sites were a phantastic eggplant-garlic mix, black-goat-pepper-dish and some beans, all in the Hunan style, which is not quite as spicy as Szechuan, but in the same direction. What could be better than great food and interesting conversations? Music? Mh, maybe… depends on what…  That brings me to the piece I had to learn extra for my trip to China. I actually had forgotten about coming here, until I wanted to update my calendar about four months ago. It was over a weekend, and since I couldn’t reach my management, I searched the schedule of China Philharmonic and Guangzhou Symphony and did indeed find myself. May 16 and 23, playing – – the Largo by Penderecki.

As the moron I am, I had never heard of the piece, not any sound of it nor of its existence. Because I was rather busy in the first few months of this year, I succesfully pushed the thoughts about having to learn this work aside, especially since I was convinced that a piece titled “Largo” couldn’t be much longer than 12 minutes. Far too late I found out that it could not be bought at a normal music store (this was beginning of April) so I asked my manager to find it for me (told you I am lazy!). Right before my trip to Australia I received the music, didn’t even look at it because I didn’t want to get scared, and as faithful reader to this blog you know that in Australia I was busy re-memorizing the 40-min-Pintscher Concerto. Not until Stuttgart, on May 9th, did I find the time to actually look at it, and realized, it is a full concerto in one movement. Yes, rather on the slow side, but with some not so easy passages, and lot of chromatic work.

Fully trusting this wonderful memorizing technique (see the “Art” of Memorizing), I started practising it every day 90-120 minutes, and inspite of travel and jetlag I managed to perform the piece 6 days later by heart. Oh, yes, I was shaky, especially in the dress rehearsal (for the first rehearsal I had to use the music, since most of the memorizing I did after having heard how the piece actually sounds together with the orchestra), and Penderecki, who was conducting himself, begged me to use my part since he would be too nervous otherwise. I half-heartedly told him that I would actually be  bound to get lost once I use the music because I wouldn’t concentrate as much and also couldn’t pay as much attention to his directing which, I have learned so far with conducting composers, is rather essential. Conducting is one thing, but to accompany a soloist is a completely different subject, which can probably only be learned by conducting opera, and even this is not a guarantuee to become a good accompanist.

The first concert was a couple of days ago in Guangzhou, I didn’t get lost too badly (only once for a couple of bars, but it was a loud place, so I wasn’t so audible anyway :)) and I think we captured the spirit of the piece, which ends very, very softly with a long silence at the end – and even though we had a smallish audience, they reacted after 20 sec of silence rather enthusiast, I was surprised about their ability to listen to such rather introvert music. Well, it is a rather tonal and not too complicated piece, but still, 25 min of slow searching stuff doesn’t come for the  average listener that easy. It is the second time I am working with Maestro Penderecki. Last time was about 8 years ago in Puerto Rico with two other cellists for the Concerto Grosso, a concerto for three cellists. He is a rather shy gentleman in his late seventies, but he doesn’t look his age whatsoever and on stage he is very energetic and musical.

I have worked now with three conducting composers: Matthias Pintscher and Krzyztof Penderecki with their own music, and John Adams with Britten’s Cellosymphony (he hasn’t written a cello concerto yet). What I found remarkable with all of them was that their hands, more or less gifted, become so much less important than their creative spirit, their deeper understanding of the music, be it their own or not. I can only guess because I never wrote a piece of music (except a piano trio of 2 min. 10 sec when I was 11 years old…): with Adams conducting Britten he rewrote the piece while conducting it, and Pintscher and Penderecki with their own pieces did the same – the outcome was definitely what they had in mind when they wrote it, because on stage they have become performers like me, they are playing music which they understand, but more as an outsider than the ones who actually wrote it. Again, I am only guessing, I didn’t discuss it with them, but it was the feeling I got while playing and rehearsing with them. Many details didn’t seem important to them, and Penderecki even encouraged me to forget about many of the dynamic markings as well as articulation he had written and I thought I had understood as important.

So much about being faithful to what the composers wrote – but at the end I am not even sure they are right when they do change their own pieces, at least in Penderecki’s case I must admit, as much as I like and respect this man, I prefer what he wrote initially (and I told him so). He told me that it was the last piece Rostropovich had played (it was written for him), and that Rostropovich never played softer than mezzo forte (middle loud), and therefore I shouldn’t start pianissimo (very soft) as he wrote but rather extrovert. Funny, how insecure they become when they are in the performers role. We’ll see if in Beijing I might convince him to do it the way he wrote… 🙂


  • joel


    this blog entry is what blogging is all about. in the history of music, only a few diarists have permitted the rest of us to view their work as it happened — behind the mystique. in your case, it isn’t the technology, which all of us can access, it’s your unique perspective and willingness to share.

    what a treat! keep it up.

  • Linda


    I really appreciate your openness and frankness about memory lapses, practice and all sorts of other things. It is very reassuring to know that even someone with your wonderful skill and performance experience is still human. : ) But the performance goes on, and if you wouldn’t tell us, most wouldn’t even know!

    Not having read many of your blogs, but being very impressed with your ability and sound, I am wondering what the ‘famous and secret technique’ of your wife that enabled you to be ready with a new piece in just 6 days? Just regular practice? I think I read on another post that she told you about a technique of previewing the music visually, kind of like ‘photo reading?’ Does this help you learn and memorize too? Would you have any suggestions for a young pianist that might help her with improving sight reading, performance nerves and memory lapses?

    Thank you so much, and keep posting!


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