Up Close and Personal at Carnegie Hall

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Ever since moving to New York City for graduate school, I have tried to attend as many concerts as possible at Carnegie Hall. I can say without a New Yorker's bias that every event I have seen there has been inspiring -- from Brahms symphonies performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, to Ravel's Gaspard played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, to new songs written and performed by Brad Mehldau and Renée Fleming, to my own father playing with the China Philharmonic on tour. But nothing was comparable to a recital I heard last week. This time, I sat on stage, merely fifteen feet away, in a recital by violist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Evgeny Kissin.

Already able to play piano concertos by memory at the age of 4, Evgeny Kissin is the definition of Wunderkind, or child prodigy. Born in Moscow, the pianist burst into the international scene in 1984 when he played and recorded both of Chopin's piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic. Today that recording is still arguably one of the best recordings exist of these two concertos. Over the past several decades Kissin has increased his popularity tenfold even has he makes only limited concert appearances each year. Off stage he remains largely private and rarely gives interviews. Over the years he has almost become a cult figure. To his fans, he is mysteriously exciting. 

My favorite, and the only recording of the Shostakovich Viola Sonata I own, is by Yuri Bashmet and Sviatoslav Richter. There is a sense of bewilderment in Bashmet's playing that always moves me. The first violist to perform a full solo recital in Carnegie Hall in 1995 (that's right, no more of those violist jokes), he is one of the most respected solo violists, and his chamber music collaborations with Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich are legendary. Now I was very curious to see what the new partnership would be like with a pianist of a younger generation.

When the lights dimmed in the auditorium and people’s voices hushed, by natural instinct I got a little nervous. My excitement grew more intense as the stage lights above my head got hotter. Watching Kissin play the opening piano solo of the Arpeggione was like watching a giant picking up little chicklings. He was extremely meticulous and precise. His trademark lyricism was as an unbreakable wave that kept pulling the audience in. Bashmet was gracefully virtuosic, a rare but essential quality that is required in this Schubert piece. The lullaby-like Adagio was handled almost too tenderly and carefully it lacked warmth.

The Brahms Sonata in E-flat Major (Op. 120 No. 2) was played with a certain constrained romanticism. The languid lines in the first movement were tastefully tossed back and forth between the two artists. The Sostenuto section in the second movement, however, was taken at such a brisk tempo it lost its majestic character but it was nevertheless impressive. 

There wasn’t a single unmusical moment throughout the evening. They did everything that was indicated in the scores and their entrances were always synchronized. The music was finely executed so I couldn’t figure out why I was not in love the first instant they started to play, like I was during Kissin’s Chopin Concerto performance just a month ago. I never quite felt the two artists were “one.”

It was not until the lively Allegretto movement of the Shostakovich Viola Sonata (Op. 147), in the middle of the second half of the concert, that I felt they stopped playing like two great soloists but one great duet. In Shostakovich’s devilish folk dance both Kissin and Bashmet seem to have finally stopped watching out for one another. Now the energy was instantaneous. They sounded as if they were improvising off of each other.

Besides occasionally turning pages for colleagues, I have watched a concert from the stage only one other time—years ago, coincidentally, in a solo recital by Kissin at the Barbican in London. The privilege of being this close to the performers and watching how they play, their body movements, their finger works, is absolutely unforgettable.

Being a pianist myself and having played all the pieces that were performed that night, it was a two-hour private lesson for me where I could observe everything that was happening within several feet and burn it onto my brain. For this particular concert, however, sitting on the left side of the pianist was not the most ideal. The balance between a nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano and a viola is highly delicate, even in the hands of two of the most decorated musicians of our time. I suspect most soloists, or other small chamber ensembles, would have had no problem with the acoustics.

If you get stage seats, be prepared to stand in line in the lobby up to 90 minutes in advance as seats are not numbered and first come, first serve. If you are prone to coughing and sneezing the stage seats are not the best for you as it would be extra distracting for the performers. All that being said, given the chance, I’d sit on stage again in a heartbeat. How often do you get to see great performances from fifteen feet away?