Rachmaninoff Third, Part Nine

May 31, 2011

People who were there: “Were you happy with your performance?”

People who missed it: “How was your concert?”

Well, if this had been any other concert, I could briefly answer, “It went great,” and then we could move on to the next part of our conversation.

Not this time.

How was it? It was like putting a piece of pottery into a kiln. The pottery bakes in the hot fires and becomes finished. That’s how the concert was for me.

It made me feel that 44 years of being onstage had been spent doing things a certain way, with a certain goal in mind, a perfectly fine goal, one that had carried me up to this point, and that I could have spent the rest of my life serving: excellence. Except that it had now been replaced by a new goal and a new functioning.

The new goal was to deliver the spirit of the music above all else.

The new functioning was total freedom, supported by the force of awareness. It was born from the white-hot concentration that resulted from my resolve to do everything the way I wanted to, in resistance to anything else that was happening, and while doing the most difficult thing possible.

Here’s an e-mail quote from an audience member who had also heard me play this piece before: “I saw something break through your inner being: a controlled ferocity waiting to be unleashed. You seemed liberated in a sense. I don’t say this lightly, but I’ve never seen more connectedness between a musician and his instrument. Thank you with all of my heart for your years of hard work and dedication.”

That night, I was sure of one thing: I had maintained my calm during the slow, melodic sections of the piece, as if I were sitting home alone. Whenever I wanted to linger and shape a phrase, I had done so, and with no sense of hurry or hesitation whatsoever. As I keep telling my students to do it, I only played when it felt like the right time to play.

Was I happy with the performance? I had the usual nagging thoughts that perfectionism brings with it. I wished that I had played every note exactly as written, which I hadn’t. I was thinking that I’d like to do it again and do it better next time.

But the following morning, I listened to a recording of the concert and my perfectionism was smashed into the ground by the sweeping power of the musical message that Rachmaninoff had crafted, and which I had managed to deliver in spite of any doubts, and which superseded all other concerns. I was actually stunned. I hadn’t realized the success of the concert in this aspect.

This performance changed things. The next time I touched a piano, I felt a new power in the playing. And music was more beautiful to me. I knew that I could expect to carry that into all of my future concerts.

–Jeffrey Chappell