The last time I performed in Zipper Hall the audience was dark. So pitch black, in fact, that a friend of mine who was sitting in the second row for “A Concerto for Claire” was mad that I didn’t see her during the performance. When I peaked out the stage door ten years later, the front house right seats were empty. So I took a deep breath, stepped on stage, heard all the clapping… and as I turned to take a bow, my eyes panned across the 330+ people in attendance, and my heart started racing.
Greg Verabian from work had told me to play “Chopsticks”, and so I did, leading into Mozart’s “Twelve Variations on ‘Ah Vous Dirai-je Maman’"(Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for those of you unfamiliar with the French title.) It kinda went: Twinkle, Twinkle, little KLUNK. How KLUNK wonder KLUNK KLUNK are. And all I kept telling myself was “please calm the f down”. Variation 1 started: KLUNK. Variation 2: KLUNK. And soon, I felt like there should be a red, digital mistake counter on stage.
In the rehearsals leading up to the recital, Michael Sushel, my brilliant accompanist, who became a coach as well, suggested that while playing I really needed to be “in the moment" -- a phrase many actors are familiar with. I had never heard it applied to music, and it made a lot of sense. But let me tell you, during dress rehearsal, this Mozart piece was clean, and it is extremely difficult to stay present when mistakes start happening.
Okay, so when you listen to the recording back, it isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be, BUT it sure felt like that at the start —and my solution was just play it faster and faster and faster until I reached the KLUNK end.
I hadn’t really performed in Zipper Hall before. Yes, I whirled through a few bars of music for “Claire”, but I was lucky really to get through those bits… and it was on the Steinway… because apparently when you want to drop a bicycle chain onto the strings for a George Crumb piece, you are immediately barred from even stepping close to the Fazioli.
The Fazioli – with its rich, lush bass strings… bass strings that are soooo grand that they overpower your right hand. Heewon, my teacher, had warned me in advance – but once you actually get onto the piano there is a whole rebalancing act between your two hands that you could never even imagine. Crazily, you have no sense of this sitting on stage. Your music sounds fabulous while you’re playing. Apparently, not so much in the audience. It took LOTS of work. Even though I had made this a priority and was intent on readjusting, Mark Gershen, who had attended the performance, asked me if I was left handed because of the sometimes-overpowering bass. No, just unbalanced.
Zipper Hall itself... amazing acoustics. But with those amazing acoustics comes the need to get your foot off the pedal and to slow everything down for clarity. In theory, playing slower should be easier. In Akira world, it is ridiculously difficult. All of those fast, flashy passages that one kinda glosses over, suddenly had to be played with precision… and really worked on… and the concert was in two weeks. Ugh! However, when listening back to the recording, while all the music felt insanely slow while performing it live – those sections where the tempo is pulled back and the foot is off the pedal – they sound right in the pocket. Lesson learned, Heewon & Michael (heretofore referred to as H&M).
PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION… or an interpretive version of. The Mussorgsky was the only piece I had never performed before publicly. This would also be the first time in a long time that I was performing a solo work of this magnitude… having most recently performed either the musical, “Closer Than Ever” as the onstage pianist with singers or “Totentanz” with an accompanist. So by myself… Panic!!!
Going into the recital, there were two pieces from “Pictures” that were giving me trouble… Tulieries (the Smurfs at play piece) and one section ofThe Great Gate of Kiev. Guess which two pieces I completely just punted on?
I will NOT perform with sheet music again. What’s funny is, I have “Pictures” memorized. But with the last minute changes to the program, all the extra rehearsing on the Rachmaninov that came before it and all the extra time spent on improving technique, I had this almost fear of failure. So I decided to use the music with a page turner. This turned out to be a pretty big mistake, because for whatever reason, in sections that I usually played off book, I decided to look up – and could not find my place in the music. Also, as another ridiculous excuse, the lid of the Fazioli is extremely reflective. So after looking up and not being able to find my place in the score, I looked down and had a double take when looking at the keys. The result was two portions of crap.
I was certainly not "in the moment" during this whole piece. To me, it felt as if I was progressively getting worse and worse with every wrong note. Listening to the recording back, it was not nearly as bad as it was in my head, and had I stayed in the moment, probably would have been better – and I probably would have had more fun. It’s odd to use an acting term to discuss music – because in acting, mistakes are embraced. In music, not as much – but if they are taking away from your performance, then you should at least not be affected by them. My sister came back stage at intermission and told me to stop flinching. And much to my disbelief, my former roommate, Fro, told me everyone was loving it.
A TALE OF TWO RHAPSODIES. The majority of my practice time leading up to the recital was on Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”… which let me tell you sounded better than mediocre in my living room, and was particularly fun to put together with Michael during our first rehearsal. Let me also tell you that during my first lesson with Heewon, the nerves really got the better of me…. Especially when there was a comment on every bar. And then while playing it in Zipper… it was time to drop this piece off the program.
It was my mother who said, “Who says this has to be the last recital?” This recital was supposed to be an end-all… one and done. And if I had not had not gone on this amazing journey of learning with H&M, then this would have been the only concert, and I would have put the Rachmaninov up and trudged through it. As it is now – boy do I want to continue working on it, continue to learn and perform this in a year or so. That desire is all a credit to H&M… no joke.
I had performed “Rhapsody in Blue” with several orchestras in high school and also with Michael at my senior high school recital. So on Friday, eight days before the recital, I decided to make the change. This was kinda my screw around piece that I always played during practice… but the hard sections never seemed to be a part of this routine…. And now I had basically a week to at least figure out how to fake it.
Rehearsals actually went pretty well. Again the hugest comment from H&M was slow down. It is remarkable how fast I was taking this compared to the end result. And again live, it still felt way slow, but in listening to it back, it was maybe even too fast. I think when you play this when you’re seventeen, everyone is just impressed you’re playing it… and when you’re adult you ask yourself what you were thinking. Passages were speeding up, slowing down…. Michael caught a wrong note I had been playing since high school. (Oddly, he didn’t correct it back then.)
Michael had suggested somewhere along the way to record myself – seriously, not sure why I didn’t. Heewon told me to print my music out with four pages on a sheet the way I was going to use it to perform way earlier…. Not sure why I didn’t do that either as I was still printing this out three hours before I had to get to Colburn. And really, not sure why I didn’t decide to swap out this piece two weeks earlier – think how much better it would have been. The Gershwin, nonetheless, was a crowd pleaser. And replacing the Rachmaninov with it, turned out to be a great programming idea. (I am posting this performance here, but there is a much cleaner version of solo only from 2015 in the Southeast Symphony post)
TOTENTANZ – is a piece I have done many times – but it was the first time I was aware of really slowing down for clarity. I left rehearsing this until the last minute too, but I do believe it came out decently. During rehearsal, Heewon told me that I was performing it so much more relaxed that the last time she had seen it at Craig Shimahara’s Unfrozen Music. Well that is all about the readjustment in technique compliments of the piano lessons.
I was up and down on the Shostakovich. I wasn’t even sure I was doing an encore. But then Michael and I tried it. Usually, I play this piece solo and even used it in a crucial scene in “Claire”. However, it was so rich with the second pianist – there is no way we could not do this.
During a second rehearsal of this, Michael suggested we play it a tad slower. Like with all the pieces, I felt like it was already going slow, but I was willing to try it. Yikes! The result is what you heard at the recital. Who would have thought? It was many people’s favorite piece.
I am so sorry that I lagged coming out of the dressing room, assuming that most people would be going down to the Omni, so I missed a handful of you. So those I didn’t get a chance to talk to, thank you soooo much for coming!!! It really means a lot to me. To those of you I did get to see at the Omni, I’m sorry I only had thirty seconds. Apparently, this was good prep for a wedding reception.
To the Colburn Crew and the Omni Staff…
To all of you who drove and flew in from out of town: Fro, Meghan, Christina, Brandon, Georgia, Ngan, Jen, Matt and Jenice…
To everyone who spent their Saturday night at Colburn with us…
To all my friends who have tolerated me on this ride…
To my sister, Midori, who ran the box office; to my brother-in-law, Justin, who did box office, ran around like crazy getting my clothes here and there and answered my phone; to Kimberly Dove who ran the event flawlessly that night so I didn’t have to worry about it….
To Rumi, Dad, Mom, Michael and Heewon…
Until the next time (yes, I think there will be a next time), I THANK YOU humbly!!!