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Mystery neighbor's sporadic performances give pointers on excellence

By John Lydon | China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-26 07:45

It has happened a few times in the three years I've been living in my apartment.

I'll be sitting in the back room, usually with the windows open, and suddenly hear the faint tones of a piano fluidly rippling from the bottom to top of the keyboard and back again.

Each time, that was merely the prelude. It's usually followed by one or another lightning-fast study piece where the player's fingers race over the keys as though they're being chased by flames, and after that another florid work where, however, the pyrotechnics leave plenty of room for expressivity.

My guess-because it's not a frequent occurrence, but with months between each time I've heard it-is that this must be a gifted, advanced conservatory student practicing on the family piano during a visit home.

I can't tell if it's in my building or the one next door, but I'd love to find out so I could pay my compliments to the musician.

You see, I'm a pianist, too. I'm devoted to it and plan my life around having ample time to practice. I've been playing for years and had the good fortune to have been trained by skilled teachers-not just in piano playing, but also music history, theory, composition, aesthetics, the whole shebang.

The only problem is, unlike my neighbor, I have no skill whatsoever.

Maybe that's a bit harsh. Let's just say that my playing continues to advance to ever-more complicated pieces that I'm unable to play.

It's taken me years to get there. Nowadays, I'm able to mercilessly butcher concert hall staples like Chopin etudes and Rachmaninoff preludes.

That doesn't mean that other, somewhat less technically demanding music is now beneath me. I regularly go back to maim early Beethoven sonatas and Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. I'm not above mangling Brahms intermezzos.

And occasionally, for old time's sake, I'll mutilate a Mozart sonata or two.

But getting back to the mystery pianist, he or she must be Chinese, because, aside from my family, I've not seen any other foreigners in the compound where I live.

I'm often amazed at how readily Chinese and other Asian peoples have stepped to the forefront of Western classical music concert stages. It's a foreign culture, one developed mostly in Italy, France, Germany and Austria in the 18th and 19th centuries.

If my amazement seems misplaced, try turning the situation around. How many French, German or Austrian erhu maestros or Peking Opera divas have you heard of?

But look at all the great Chinese pianists nowadays. People like Li Yundi, Lang Lang, Wang Yuja, just to mention a few-and there are so many more of these young piano lions.

But not all great Chinese pianists are young. This is a trend that has been going on for some time.

Five or six years ago, I had the great privilege of hearing a grand tone poet among pianists, Fou Ts'ong, perform in Beijing. Fou must have been around 80 years old at the time. His program included a group of short pieces written in the mid 18th century by the Italian composer to the Spanish court, Domenico Scarlatti.

The simple, but hauntingly beautiful works were composed as study material for the Spanish queen, an amateur harpsichordist. And in Fou's hands, they were exquisite.

It reminded me at the time of an anecdote I heard maybe 30 years ago about the great Polish American pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

If memory serves me, Rubinstein was touring Asia many years ago and agreed to an acquaintance's request that he give a lecture-performance for piano students at the Shanghai Conservatory.

On the appointed day, he played for them some virtuosic pieces meant to dazzle listeners and was surprised that they looked bored. When he finished, one of the students thanked him, and then hesitantly added, but all of us can do that; we were hoping to learn more about the poetry of piano playing.

Who knows? Maybe Fou was there, too.

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