Alban's Blog

Touring the US with Janos

With Janos in the Dunes of OregonThe fact I haven’t written anything in this blog since quite a while doesn’t mean at all that I was so incredibly busy. Musicians and especially soloists love to pretend that they have so much on their mind and their schedule that they can’t even respond to little e-mails being thrown at them while wasting their time with the most senseless things, skyping, chatting, playing soccer manager or whatever. I am not pretending, but I wasn’t wasting my time either; as I wrote before, I just achieved happiness unkown to me before, which somehow took care of my strange urge to write constantly about my not so interesting life. Suddenly all I my worries, all my petty little needs of recognition and admiration have vanished and all I can think now is how to be as much as possible with my new-found love.

Why do I suddenly write? Good question – maybe because I don’t want to stop something which I have started a couple of years ago and which has been a rather authentic tool of showing thoughts and dealings within a travelling musicians life, hoping that it would take away a bit from the unhealthy facade we put in front of ourselves and shows how musicians actually tick. Well, we are not all the same, there are some more normal than others, but at the end of the day, we are all, with very, very few exceptions, rather ordinary craftsmen and women who are lucky enough to be heralded with a certain admiration solely achieved by not only having spent enough hours behind our instruments, but using certain tools to make sure people remember us.

“Charisma” is a part of it. What is a charismatic person? A good actor can easily portray a charismatic person by going through the well-known motions of what charismatic people are supposed to do; portrait a lot of self-confidence, look people straight in the eyes, smile or look highly serious, just pretend to be on a mission. I participated at a little gem of a festival the other day, the Chelsea Music Festival in New York, and I made a sad but powerful experience: there was an excellent group of chambermusicians, the first violinist a young soloist who went through all these motions of over-expressing with face and body-language her/his (no names!) love for the music, versus the cellist, who rather motionless focussed on playing as beautiful as I have rarely heard a cellist play.

While the violinist is having a wonderful career, the cellist, a woman, not old at all, but not “new” anymore, is struggling with her career, mainly teaching nowadays, and why? First of all for a woman it seems most unfairly so that after a certain age it becomes very hard to compete with the younger, more “attractive” “chicks”, while men don’t face that kind of problem; but second, and most important of all, she didn’t do the things one expects from a cellist, the swaying, the drooling, the falling of her chair – no, she sat completely still, but in this stillness for me she had the most charisma I have seen in a long time.

For me it is not charisma if somebody shakes the head, sways back and fourth, smiles during beautiful passages, suffers during the more elegic tunes, in short wears his heart on the sleeve and lets everybody know how musical and emotional he/she is – this is poor acting. Charismatic is somebody who carries in himself a dignity, a fire, true emotion and passion without having to rub it into your face, somebody who has to say something of importance without necessarily spelling it all out at once. It is almost like keeping a secret, a beautiful, fragile secret, and we, the audience, have to guess it. Maybe we will never know what it was all about, but we know for sure it was special.
Rarely have I felt so inspired by another musician while saddened by the fact that this truth is no being perceived by everybody, otherwise this specific lady cellist would have the biggest possible career. Also she is really bad in bullshitting, shmoozing doesn’t seem to be her forte, and she might not have to say much about music without holding her cello at the same time; but I must admit that some of the musicians who come up with great stories and projects, didn’t come up with them all by themselves; and if, it is oh so often just a gimmick, just a trick, “music inspired by martians” or “romantic music for werewolfs”, replacing the story of the unspeakable, what music is actually about, with a real story, everybody, even the last little martian, can understand.

Oh, now I know why I might be writing: I am separated from her since two weeks, she competing at a competition in Australia, me travelling with my son János in the US – and I am slowly feeling the void of not having my better half with me, as much as I love spending time with my little man. Don’t misunderstand me, I am very happy spending some one-on-one time with him, it has been quite a toll on him, the changes of the past few months, and while handling it beautifully, it is good to do some very exciting white-water-rafting, hiking, swimming in some rivers, driving ATV’s in the dunes of Oregon, going to movies, eating out at burger joints, pizza places, fine Asian cuisine – in between playing concerts, how else could it be, and not too few.

Here in Oregon I participated at the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, playing not only all Bachsuites but also the three Brittensuites, two of them for the first time. Lucky enough it was spread out over three concerts, otherwise I might just have died or at least have developed a knot in my brain. I find the music of Benjamin Britten, as beautiful as it is, very, very difficult to memorize, and I did make some silly mistakes, even in the first suite which I had played and recorded before; but like the Bachsuites, it is music which doesn’t really get any easier with time. Upon my arrival I was immediately introduced to one of the foremost Bachspecialists, John Evans, former head of BBC 3, which didn’t make me sleep any better, because he doesn’t only know the music backwards, he knew Britten as well as Rostropovich, and he had high expectations in me after having enjoyed 12 years ago my very first Britten Cellosymphony. Talking about pressure…

Now we are travelling to Nashville for some Saint-Saens concerto, off to New York afterwards, his birthtown, and then we drive by car to another lovely festival, the Chautauqua Festival where we will meet Miguel Hardt-Bedoya, with whom I do another Saint-Saens, again. He had also been with his entire family in Eugene, and our kids had spent a wonderful time together; good for me because I had to focus during these days on my program. We never get to do all the things we want to do, so the biggest part missing on our trip is camping. I adore camping, but with the cello and two big suitcases I didn’t feel it in me to carry around an entire camping equipment. Driving through all these stunning National Forests in Oregon I must say my heart was bleeding, because we passed one gorgeous campground after another. And the Americans do take care of their Forests, so well-kept and clean, quite an example…

The two weeks in New York I managed to share with my love, whose piano trio had also been invited, and although we all had plenty to work, we had a blast – what a great city, no wonder, I loved living there for eight years. Could I imagine moving back? Mh, why not, if real estate gets cheaper, yes, but right now, when you can live about four times cheaper in Berlin, I prefer having space and green surroundings for a reasonable place than a little room for a fortune. But it’s always great to be back, I still love the pulse and the energy, the different kind of foods you can eat almost 24 hours per day, the fact that everything is possible and anything goes – nobody would turn around if you walked in your pyjama on the street, it feels like a very tolerant city, and Central Park just seems to be like peace on earth: all these different races, social back grounds, ages, they all mix in such a way that I start believe it could be possible, people actually could work out their differences…

But as soon as we were trying to get off the plane in Frankfurt, people pushing through, not letting you step out of your row, I was back in reality; isn’t it amazing? First they make these long lines to get into the plane first, and then they go nuts in trying to get out, even though they all will have to wait for their suitcases for a long time anyway.
Well, it’s about time we get out of this plane – I promise I won’t let as much time pass again, because all my cheap excuses about being in love don’t count – I am just straight-out lazy!


  • Tom

    Alban, I was at the same concert at the Chelsea Festival and saw you there. I was going to go up and say “Hi” but didn’t think I had anything to discuss with you beyond that, so I let you be. From your comments about the concert, and my views of it, I think I was wrong. Sorry that I didn’t get to hear you play live, but I was in NYC on business and had to leave the next day. Glad I heard this concert though! Like you I was mesmerized by the cellist too. Such a complete and wonderfully expressive musician. Right after, I emailed a friend that everything she did was directly involved in musical expression through sound and, perhaps as important, she also did nothing that didn’t contribute to musical expression through sound. Not far into the piece, I found my attention drawn to what she was doing.

    It is interesting to think about physical gestures, which can sometimes mar a perfectly musical performance, or in ordinary life, a conversation with a human being. Some everyday gestures are the stock in trade of polite discourse and help people connect: smiling, nodding, shaking hands, eye contact and the like. But, if inauthentic or overdone, most people sense it right away, and what was meant to draw people in can push them away. I find it the same with physical gestures of musicians when playing. Somehow if the gestures seem to be involuntary and authentic, and subtle enough that they don’t overshadow what’s being done through sound, they don’t bother me at all. But if I get the feeling that the musician is mugging for the audience, if they’re giving me a roadmap of what I ‘should’ be feeling at the moment, it turns me off big time.

    I’m glad you’re having a great summer. Your trip with your son sounds like a dream trip for a boy his age.

  • Dave from Boston

    Alban – you are RIGHT ON with your comments about the “acting” that some performers do. Sadly, it works for a number of performers, because audiences in many situations aren’t sufficiently informed to critically listen to and assess the music purely on musical terms–but they can critically respond to visual cues.

    Unlike you, I’ll name names. I had to stop looking at Alisa Weilerstein this spring when she performed Shostakovich’s 2nd cello concerto with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Maybe she was being genuine (I’m not in a position to question her motives), but my god, I just wasn’t interested in seeing her dancing in her chair, grimacing, and otherwise performing non-musically. Even not looking at her, I have to say, I did not care for her performance either, because it lacked any sort of self-discipline and as a result just “missed” the music in a big way. It seemed to be all about her, not Shostakovich (although I was in the minority on that opinion for sure, not just with the audience, but even with the people I was with). I think Joshua Bell is a tremendous violinist, but for god’s sake, I wish he would just play and stop with the constant gestures, dancing with his feet anchored to the floor, etc. He is far more talented, and far better a musician, than this, and his visual performances just cheapen the overall experience. Or the pianist Jonathan Biss, who hits the trifecta in my book–annoying gestures, unnecessary body movements, and indistinguished playing (I’ve heard him live now three times, and for the life of me I do not understand how he gets such great reviews let alone has a career–there is a phrase in French which describes his piano playing to my ears–vin ordinaire).

    Then contrast to someone like Martha Argerich. She does not emote, she does not make gestures, she just plays–and my god does she play. She is not exciting to watch–but unbelievable to listen to! Or you, for that matter. You are the real deal, an outstanding musician who seems to truly make music, rather than just do another gig.

    A great topic for sure…I just hope you actually print this and not censor it, because I name some (but far from all) names.

  • Alban

    Hi Tom, yes, too bad you didn’t approach me, would have been fun to discuss this in person. I totally agree with – I don’t mind gestures if they are sincere, but if they tell us what we should feel in the music, if it’s not connected with the actual music coming out of their instruments, or even worse, if it is supposed to make the audience go wild at the end, I have an almost allergic reaction to it. My friend and pianist Cecile Licad with whom I recorded my latest cd (Casals Encores) she moves as well, but this is for real, no exaggerated gestures, just a great urgencey for playing music. Or if you remember the violinist of the trio which played the modern piece before intermission – the music was reflected in her entire body language and her very expressive (and very beautiful… :)) face, but as it was such deep music making, it didn’t deflect at all from what was going on musically, rather the opposite.

    Hi Dave – I have never heard any of the two players you are mentioning in real concert, I just heard good things about both of them; oh, I wouldn’t censor anything, even if you say some things I completely disagree; I only deleted two or three comments which were insulting and obviously meant to be silly. This said, there is a very strong spam filter which filters every day hundreds of messages, so it might be, that sometimes some comment gets filtered away without me realizing. I apologize for that!
    But yes, I agree, it seems that some audiences are easier to be seduced by superficial gestures than
    others, may they be less educated, or maybe it is also just Zeitgeist – everything is more in our faces; just compare action movies of today with old James Bond movies, or the video clips of today with the ones 20 years ago. Everything is faster, louder, and, as I put it, more in your face. Everything has to be apparently exaggerated in order to be felt or tasted (wrote a blog about this couple of years ago, “Sugar in Music” I think it was called), this is sad but often true…
    The real deal? Oh, I don’t feel like it right now at all, just ready for holidays – one month no concerts, I can’t tell you how much I need this in order to keep on making music as authentically as I can (it’s tiring at times…).
    Best wishes from Chautauqua,

  • Tina

    Your description of the cellist at the festival reminded of someone who is highly regarded at an online cello community that includes several pros. Turns out it’s one & the same. I really hope I get to hear her one day.

    ps- Looking forward to your return to Montreal next year.


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