This evening, I had one of the supreme musical experiences of my life. It was the return to Newport after 26 years, of Andrei Gavrilov, the Russian pianist (now living in Germany). One year after the Newport Music Festival began, Mark Malkovich, the director, had the chutzpah to go the USSR and ask them to let him bring Gavrilov, then 18, just after he had won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. To his astonishment, they sent him, albeit with an omnipresent KGB agent. Now, at age of 44, he returns for the Opening night gala.
I was expecting a stupendous evening, but it turned out to be much more than I had hoped for. I've heard the CD of Rachmaninoff playing a modern piano, "A Window in Time." It was done because Rachmaninoff, when he was alive, recorded much of his work on a machine that captured not just the notes, like a player piano, but also the nuances, the attacks, the phrasing, the crescendos, etc. He was an unbelievable player. It was just as he said, "I am the best." No one I have ever heard could play with such strength, power, and speed, accuracy, and grace, all at once...no one, that is, except Gavrilov, whose recordings are instantly recognizable to the ear. But I didn't know he was such a performer, such a showman, so narcissistic, so weird.
The evening began in the Great Hall of The Breakers. I arrived at 8:10 PM for the 9:00 PM concert, and the line was already going around the block. There were those of us who were casually dressed, and there were those of Newport's High Society, in ballgowns, with fabulous jewelry, tuxedos. By running, pushing, climbing over aging dowagers and knocking doddering old men to the ground, I was able to secure a good seat with an excellent view of the keyboard.
First, came Mark Malkovich, the Festival Director, who gave a short lecture on the scales and the tempering of the clavier. This was in preparation for the first half of the program, 24 pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach. I was not looking forward to Bach on the piano of a great romantic pianist, and was eager to have it out of the way for the second half of the concert. Was I wrong!!
The lights dimmed and went out. Piercing the darkness was a single white laser spot focused finely on the score, which was on the music holder of a Yamaha Concert Grand. From out of the darkness came Gavrilov, wearing a white tunic, a long pony tail, and dark sunglasses, chewing gum. He walks and plays with jerky motions, like a puppet with ADHD. He nodded to the audience, who were cheering, and slid right onto the piano bench and began. The light reflecting from the white score cast him in a dim golden glow. When he plays, his whole body is in constant motion, his head bobbing and weaving, his shoulders rolling as though he were rowing. Sometimes, he stares up at the ceiling with his mouth open as he plays. Then he crouches over the piano, chewing madly, grimacing and making awful faces. He has a very Jewish face--I was surprised--I did not know he was a Jew--big jaw, big lips, big nose. Sometimes, he turns suddenly, as he is playing, and stares out into the audience for several seconds. He finishes each piece with a great flourish of his hand, and flips the page with bravado. When he is done, he does not wait for the echo to die down or for the moment to linger--he jumps to his feet, raising his arms, moving about the stage, as if to say, "Here I am!! Adore me!!" And then he jumps right back into the next piece without waiting for the applause to die down.
And the music? Well, I loved it. It was highly idiosyncratic, played in the romantic style, rather like Horowitz, who did things his way, too. They seem to be equally talented, weird, narcissistic, and brilliant. They both elicit cheers and boos. Yes, some people booed loudly. He would vary tempos, make sudden interpolated stops, accelerandos, sforzandos, subito pianos--all of his own invention. It made the music highly dramatic. He could play faster than anyone I have ever heard, and he could play delicately. He was creating buildings, cities, mountains, valleys, heavens. He seemed to understand the architecture of the universe--macro and micro. But you have to close your eyes to see it, because his mannerisms and physical style distract you from how great his playing is. As I watched this big guy with a pony tail, wearing a smock, playing the piano, wearing sunglasses, bobbing his head from side to side, I thought, "Who is this? Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles?"
After the intermission (he took one bow after he finished the last of the Bach and did not return to the stage), he returned for the Four Ballades of Chopin. Now the lights were on, and he bounded to the stage wearing black silk pajamas with a bright red collar and red stripes around the wrists. Now the ponytail was unleashed, and he had a Jesus hairdo. At times, when there was a short passage for one hand in the Chopin, he would use his free hand to casually brush the hair from in front of his face, to push his glasses back against his face, and then he would chew and look at the ceiling. The Ballade No. 1 was OK, a little heavy-handed than it needed to be. When he finished, he gave the thumbs-up sign to Malkovich. The Second was astounding, the Third was even more brilliant, the height of pianistic excellence. After the Third, he leapt to his feet, grinning, and blew kisses with both hands to Malkovich. The Fourth was a winddown. At the conclusion, he jumped to his feet, grinning, waved with both hands and left the stage. It seemed he would not return, but he did, sat down at the piano, and played "Happy Birthday" to Mark Malkovich, who is 70. Golden balloons floated down from the balcony. Everyone cheered. Then he went over to Malkovich, seated in the front row, and he kissed Malkovich's hands.
He left the stage, and then out came Dmitri Sitkovetsky, son of Bella
Davidovich, who made her American debut here in Newport, as did Sitkovetsky
and his son. He spoke warmly of Malkovich, and how he had opened up opportunities
in America for so many artists. Then Gavrilov returned to the stage, and
the two together played the last movement of the "Champagne" Violin Sonata
of Beethoven in honor of Malkovich.
They had never rehearsed it. It was fabulous. Now you heard what a fine musician Gavrilov was playing straightforward Beethoven, if there is such a thing. But he couldn't let the evening conclude without having the last word. He made Sitkovetsky sit beside him at the piano, while he played a cute Shostakovich caprice.
What a night!