creative confidence, and Pekka Kuusisto

I have come to believe the best way to understand a given nation or people is to immerse oneself in its food, music, and religion.  Having spent seven days in London, I've been able only to scratch the surface of these three subjects.  And while I didn't tour Westminster Abbey, I did search through the history of British religious practice at the exceptional Victoria & Albert Museum. The night before I left Chicago, I, fueled by mild caffeine at one in the morning, looked through the calendars of about a dozen performance venues around the city and made a schedule of potential events to attend.  Upon seeing the listing that night, I knew immediately that I had to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra play Britten, Adés, and Vaughan Williams at Royal Festival Hall.

Hearing musicians play music of their own country is particularly enlightening.  Beyond the traditional folk tunes and recognizably nationalistic melodies, there are collective experiences written into music.  The first piece on the program, the Sea Interludes from Britten's opera Peter Grimes, are, in my mind, the kind of sound that Turner paints.  They are depictions of grey English coastlines and vibrant cathedral squares -- music that a Midwestern American like me cannot understand.

There is a difference between seeing things and living them.  I can visit the Suffolk coast at Adleburgh where Britten spent most of his life, but if music is, as Phillip Glass says, an underground river that we dig for to hear, then the water flows for a lifetime.  How can I play music made of English water and waves when others have been hearing them since childhood?

The Philharmonia Orchestra, like all world-class ensembles, have a particularly unified vision of the music they play.  Led for this concert by formidable English conductor Nicholas Collon, it was clear from the first, lofty violin motif that everyone on stage had an almost instinctual knowledge of the way Britten is supposed to sound.  The piece, which I had never heard before, was awe-inspiring.

And so with Vaughan Williams's sixth symphony, a brazen declaration of conflicting rhythms and modalities.  What strikes me about both these pieces is how intricately complex they are, and yet how delicately each musical element rests on all the others.  "Delicate," perhaps, isn't the correct descriptor for the symphony's blazing Allegro, but the precision required for its successful execution demands a certain amount of careful -- though fearless -- playing on the part of the performer.  Rather like jumping out of an airplane at the exact right moment: both careful and fearless.

The gem of the evening, however, came from Finnish artist Pekka Kuusisto: the Thomas Adés violin concerto, another piece almost feline in nature, resting lightly on its feet yet sprung taut with volatile energy.  While Kuusisto's 1752 Guandagnini violin produces the most beautiful spectrum of tone colors, I think this piece may demand a Stradivarius -- famously bright, soaring sound for music that requires both sweetness and aggression.

Between his ovations and encore (what sounded to be improvisations on a melody of J.S. Bach), Kuusisto spoke to the audience: "Thank you for agreeing to listen to music by a living composer, and thank you to the orchestra for agreeing to play it.  Remember, 95 percent of all music was written by a living composer."  To be a champion of new music, considered the death knell of ticket sales everywhere, one must have a sense of humor about it.

But the point is worth making.  Despite the multitudes of stories about artists who died laughingstocks and were later considered masters, it is difficult to imagine reading a review, good or bad, of Mozart's latest premiere.  For all the mockery that today's composers receive, what must it have been like to be Monteverdi, staging the first modern opera?  Or Mahler, expanding the orchestra (the one standardized by Beethoven) to monstrous proportion?  There have been artists living, creating, and ignoring conventions in far less revolutionary (and tolerant) times than ours.

I think Kuusisto is exactly the kind of artist we need right now -- not only in music, but in all disciplines.  Soloist and director, collaborator and composer, folk artist and technical master.  As science writer Natalie Angier has said, "If the twentieth century was the age of the specialist, then the twenty-first will be the age of the integrationist."  What is true in science is true in art.

To be an artistic integrationist requires a creative confidence in which Kuusisto is not lacking.  He bounds up the stage, eagerly embraces his conductor and musicians, and, of course, does not shy away from making jokes.  Creative confidence is an inner quality, but it is fed by the influence of many external inspirations -- the operative concept here being many.  Kuusisto has worked with orchestras, noise bands, and jugglers, to name just those that have been widely publicized.

Being in London has infused me with a renewed creative confidence, both from seeing art and artists displaying theirs so beautifully, and from being in a completely foreign place.  Visiting a museum in one's home town is quite different from visiting a museum abroad.  When we travel, all our usual senses -- securities and insecurities, pre- and misconceptions -- fall away, or at least relax.  We are more receptive to the new when we are not surrounded by the old.

About three weeks ago, I decided that I would give a piano recital at the end of this year.  Now, having seen and experienced so much with those recital ideas in my mind, I am prepared to go at it with a new vigor and a new approach.  While I tried to leave most old ideas behind as I experienced this new place, there are still a few I gladly carried with me.

And now I most gleefully carry new ideas back home.  Though I wrote most of these words this morning over tea, I'm finishing them up from the gate at Heathrow Airport.  I  find it difficult to believe that any time has passed at all, but the rest of life awaits.


In 1964, when Britten received the first Aspen Award from the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the citation read: “To Benjamin Britten, who, as a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose and destiny.”

So I'll end with this, a small and beautiful part of his acceptance speech, which deserves a reading in full:

It had not occurred to me, frankly, that it was I who was to be the recipient of this magnificent award, and I was stunned. I am afraid my friends must have felt I was a tongue-tied host. But I simply could not imagine why I had been chosen for this very great honor. I read again the simple and moving citation. The key-word seemed to be “humanities.” I went to the dictionary to look up its meaning, I found Humanity: “the quality of being human” (well, that applied to me all right). But I found that the plural had a special meaning: “Learning or literature concerned with human culture, as grammar, rhetoric, poetry and especially the ancient Latin and Greek Classics.” [...] Humanitarian was an entry close beside these, and I supposed I might have some claim here, but I was daunted by the definition: “One who goes to excess in his human principles (in 1855 often contemptuous or hostile).” I read on, quickly. Humanist: “One versed in Humanities,” and I was back where I started. But perhaps after all the clue was in the word “human,” and I began to feel that I might have a small claim.