Music for Piano and Cello: Altstaedt and Madzar

This week I am writing about my other love – classical music, and the concert which thrilled us last Saturday night at the Perth Concert Hall.

Being Grand Final day for the AFL (Australian Football League for my non-Australian readers) meant that the audience was the smallest I’ve ever seen for a concert of this standard. That meant that we, and many others, could move to better seats and enjoy the performance even more.

Anything composed by Claude Debussy has me in the clouds, so when Nicolas Altstaedt touched his bow to his cello and Aleksandar Madzar  ran his fingers over the keys of that grand piano, I sat back and let the music they created, carry me away.

The novel I am currently writing is about a former concert pianist who loses his right hand in a motor accident, so I am always keen to sit where I can study the movement of fingers, hands, arms and even the shoulders of a maestro, while listening carefully to the music they make. The Russians tend to over-dramatize, using large, flourishing lifts and pounces, while some pianists seem to use their whole upper torsos in a sequence of movements up and down the keys. I am a fan of Simon Tedeschi, having followed him since he was doing gigs as a teenager (maybe a bit older but he looked like a teenager) but his performances, although spectacular, remind me of an athlete as he pounds the keys with so much energy that I feel quite exhausted and he certainly looks worn out. I haven’t seen him lately so, maybe that’s an outdated comment.

Aleksandar Madzar played from the heart, both mentally and physically and his hands moved like a ballet dancer, gliding over keys with a seemingly effortless touch, one hand lifting gracefully in the air, to float onto the next note, above or below the one just played. Even when performing the fast and furious movements in the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, although his fingers moved at almost blinding speed, this pianist made it look relatively easy. Of course it wasn’t, and he must have been exhausted at the end of the final piece, but his hands and fingers still moved like a dancer, just a very quick and agile one.

My character is fictional. I have been looking for the performer who makes exquisite sound from this instrument called a piano. Once before, in London, I saw and heard Marc-Andre Hamelin performing at Wigmore Hall. As research for this novel, (which I started writing in about 1993) I took a young budding pianist with me to that concert. I think he was even more excited than me, when, after the concert, we met Mr Hamelin as he was having supper with a friends at the same cafe as us. Imagine my delight when I could ask this real maestro how he would feel and what he would do if he lost his right hand.

I use his responses in my story, so you’ll have to wait to read the novel.

Back to our concert in Perth last Saturday night. For me, because of my particular interest, and I suppose also because I can play the piano, very basically these days, but at least I know what is required if one hopes to achieve any sort of success, the piano did tend to dominate my attention, but the cellist was WOW!!!

Nicholas Altstaedt looks rather like  our West Australian garden guru on the ABC gardening program. Dark  curly hair, reaching almost to his shoulders, frequently falling over his face and needing the straying bits tucked back behind his ears. The more wildly he played (and he frequently had the bow and cello doing a frantic dance) the more his hair bounced and flew all over the place.

He rarely appeared to look at the musical score, instead, leaning back in his chair, eyes closed, his head tilted up as if communing with the heavens, the fingers of his left hand quivered or glided over and along the strings of his cello while the bow either seemed to melt into and over his 1750s Gigli instrument or sped up and down, all over the place in the wildest, fastest rendition of any cello playing, or any movement of bows and fingers, I’ve seen. As each piece ended, Alstraedt stood up, revealing at least one string dangling from the end of his bow. I think he must have re-strung every bit of it by the end of the concert. He was magnificent and the audience went wild.

After interval a slightly built young man with straight hair that kept falling down over his face, walked up the steps and onto the stage to introduce himself and his music. Jakub Janowski is a young composer based in Adelaide. I don’t usually like modern classical music, but his ‘Aspects of Return’, a sonata for piano and cello, was impressive. Occasionally melodic, there were lots of frantic, almost manic sections when I wondered if both musicians might disappear in a puff of smoke. Thank goodness it was quite short, because I doubt if  the audience, and definitely the musicians, could have handled that intensity for longer.

When the program ended with the Shostakovich  Cello Sonata op40, we, the audience had to clap our performers back on stage for a forth time before we got our encore. They must have been exhausted, but they gave us a repeat performance of the Nadia Boulanger ‘Three Pieces for Piano and Cello,’ not as demanding as most of the pieces they played, but pleasant listening.

We floated out of the hall, feeling elated. I would have loved to meet the musicians, especially the pianist as I have plenty of questions to ask him that would help me capture the heart and soul of my character, but I assumed that they would be too exhausted to speak to anyone. It was only the next day, when re-reading the program that I realised they were available for a chat after the concert. Next time I’ll do my homework.

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