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Nathan Cole

How (not) to get a picture with Kissin

March 24, 2011 at 11:28 PM


Nathan standing between Kissin and his warmup!


I've written about Evgeny Kissin before here, specifically about his appearances with the CSO at Symphony Center.  3 years ago, these were some of the comments I heard after his performance:

"That's scary." "There's just no one like that." "Do you think he does anything else?" "That look in his eyes, that explains it." "This is the best I've heard." "I'll remember this one for years."

I went on to describe how he earned these comments:

From what we see around the hall, Kissin plays a LOT of piano when he is not on stage.  Might this explain it?  To perform under pressure for that many minutes and even hours, you must practice under pressure for hours.  He does not 'doodle' at the keyboard.  His practicing sounds like performance.  Of course, for someone like Kissin who plays more than a hundred concerts a year, you don't give yourself a chance to get out of performance shape!

Well, nothing has changed.  Kissin is still one of the greats; surely no pianist has a technique as powerful and as sure.  And Kissin still plays a great amount of piano.  In fact, he is never to be seen away from the keyboard.  There is a hallway that runs along the length of the men's locker room, and on the other side of that hallway is the under-stage piano storage.  For reasons that aren't yet clear to the men in the orchestra, Kissin prefers to practice in that hallway when he's not on stage.  Therefore we can (must!) hear exactly how he practices.

Let it be said that he leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of absolute perfection and total consistency.  Repeating a passage slowly 100 times in a row is nothing, absolutely nothing, to him; I've actually sat and listened to him do it on several occasions.  Of course, he also repeats passages at tempo.  To my satisfaction, he does all of this with dynamics and nuances intact.

I have found myself at the hall quite a bit this week, between CSO rehearsals, teaching, and rehearsing for a piano trio concert at the Art Institute this Sunday.  The piano practice is never far out of earshot, even though I don't always know what piece I'm hearing.  But during the rehearsal of the Grieg piano concerto yesterday, I found myself recognizing passage after passage that I had been hearing at half tempo!

3 years ago, I wrote:

[Then there's his] consistency from night to night.  I have not heard Kissin less than razor-sharp.  I haven't read accounts of it either.  What motivates someone to reach for that level every time they step out on stage?  For this I have no answer.

I still don't.  I've heard great soloists play at various levels since the last time I heard Kissin, but this is a reminder of what results from total dedication married to prodigious talent.

I'm getting to the picture, but I need you to understand that there is no one alive with a compulsion as powerful as Kissin's to play an instrument.  I'm confident that the hall could fall down around him and he would happily knock out another hundred repetitions.

So, how best to get a signed CD and a photo with the man?  Obviously, there mustn't be a piano around.  But without a piano, there's no Kissin.  It struck me this morning that there would be one golden window of opportunity:  before we could rehearse the Grieg with the Symphony, the stagehands had to take the piano away from Kissin (!) and put it onto the elevator to get it on stage.  This is, understandably, not a swift elevator.  In fact, the whole process would take several minutes, during which he would be waiting for the instrument to appear.  That would have to be it!

I appeared in the wings, CD in hand, at the appointed time.  There was our soloist, waiting on stage.  There was the rectangular abyss in the middle of the platform, the piano slowly rising up from the depths.  But Kissin was occupied!  He was discussing pressing matters, in Russian even, with our British artistic administrator.  Curse his talent for languages!  By the time business was settled, the piano had arrived!  I could swear that I saw Kissin's feet and hands begin to twitch in anticipation as the instrument sat just 10 feet away.

I began to lose my nerve, but I knew there would be no better moment.  I stepped in swiftly.  To his credit, Kissin took my CD and signed it with a flourish, though I could see him straining to the keyboard behind him.  I asked him if I might find him after rehearsal for a picture, but he replied that we could do it then if we made it quick.  "I'd like to warm up," he said.  I wanted to laugh, knowing that he'd been away from that instrument for all of 10 minutes.  In fact, you can see me trying to suppress my delight in the wonderful photo below, taken by Akiko with her iPhone.  Kissin is trying to suppress a decidedly different emotion!  I hope he forgave me; this was the situation I had been trying to avoid all along.

In retrospect, the photo was actually as predictable as Kissin's practice itself.  3 years ago I compared him to Tiger Woods.  Reading that paragraph today, I admit a chuckle at the first sentence, but the rest of it stands:

Kissin, like Tiger, has found fulfillment doing what he does best.  On some days, the joy of playing is enough to prompt several hours of good work.  Other days, it's an upcoming deadline such as new repertoire to be performed.  Still others, a long-term goal suffices to get the work juices flowing.  And finally, when all else fails, routine:  what would a day be without six hours of piano?  Many of us are afraid to face a day without coffee.  Or our favorite TV show.  Is it for us to say that coffee and television are be more "natural" for everyone?  Kissin made a combination of choices long ago and they have served him well.  I hope they continue to do so.  And I hope that we benefit for decades to come.

I still do!  Come hear the phenom tonight, Friday and Saturday with the CSO in Grieg's piano concerto and, almost certainly, encores!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 25, 2011 at 3:05 AM

Hi, very cool... : )

From Michael Pijoan
Posted on March 25, 2011 at 9:42 AM

 That picture is awesomely funny.  The difference between the facial expressions is classic.

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on March 25, 2011 at 12:41 PM

Evgeny looks like he's just not a photo-op kind of guy! haha Bless his heart for his effort, though!

Glad you got the pic and the signed CD. I know what that's like to be a fan! I wish there was a way to shake the nerves.

From Christina C.
Posted on March 28, 2011 at 8:14 PM

thanks for that little glimpse into how the pros do it.  After being told so many times that slow practice (& repetition) are the way to go, it's surprising how easily I still stray from that. Reading something like this helps to hit the point home!

From Susanne James
Posted on March 31, 2011 at 7:09 PM

Thanks for posting this brilliant photo - obviously you weren't as lucky as I (see profile pic) but it's an absolute classic and I have laughed so many times over it. Nathan, you will see from the quote below that others share your sentiment towards Kissin's dedication to his Art and magnetic affinity to the piano! :)

"After the pause, Kissin returned from backstage, strode to the piano in his characteristic gait, and I swear this to you: his fingers connected with the keys like a heat-seeking missile to a warm target; and he began playing Brahms before his ass even touched that piano bench. That boy got mad money $kill$. For him, placing his hands on the keys is inherently more natural than placing his butt on the bench. I’ve never seen anyone launch into the pieces quicker than Kissin . . . . " (by Opera Chic - Milan)

(Evgeny Kissin

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