Proof of Life

I have, this year, been chasing unicorns. Life in the age of COVID has taught me that if one is spotted, then best to do all you can to pursue it, because in the twinkling of an eye it can slip from your grasp. I know this from experience– I had spotted a unicorn back in late 2019–a performance of the entire cycle of Shostakovich string quartets, planned for the fall of 2020, at Banff. Not only did that unicorn slip away, the quartet that had planned to present it is retiring. It was an illusion, a shadow of what might have come to be. Chasing unicorns means knowing, in your heart, that they might turn out to be mythical after all.

Life in lockdown meant livestreamed concerts. One does what one can. And in the early days of 2020, pianist Igor Levit began hosting livestreams from his house, despite having no idea, in the early days, of what technology was needed to do such a thing. He just needed to play. I already was a fan of Levit from his recording Life, an eclectic collection of solo piano pieces, including a stunning rendition of Schumann’s Ghost Variations. But I found out about his livestreams too late, after he’d wrapped them up by essaying the entirety of Shostakovich’s op. 87 Preludes and Fugues. That’s 24 of them, a prelude and fugue for each major and minor key. To play them all in one sitting is rarely done–but Levit, in the isolation of his home, had done so. And I had missed it. But having missed the livestream did not mean I had lost out entirely, as Levit subsequently recorded the work as part of his On DSCH release. I was happy with what I had. Until I found the unicorn. While trying to determine when to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, I was checking what other concerts might be happening around the same time–hoping I might be able to pair the opera with another performance, as I had in June with Akhnaten and the NYPhil doing Shostakovich 5. And there it was: Igor Levit, Carnegie Hall, October 18–playing the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues.

This was a conundrum. First of all, there was just the one performance, and it was in no way convenient to any performance of Lady Macbeth. That would mean it would have to either be a multi-day trip, or I’d have to make two trips to NYC. Second, the tickets did not go on sale until August. It was Carnegie Hall. Did I dare to even dream I could get one? Third, there was, well, life. You may recall that I was not in the happiest of places this past summer emotionally–having that feeling that something was wrong at work. Could I afford this trip–monetarily, and just in general?

But the unicorn had to be pursued. I went ahead and formed a plan: I’d see Lady Macbeth on its opening night. I’d sell some old gold to raise some funds. And, if when late August rolled around there was the chance of getting a ticket, I’d go for it.

Life changed on August 18 when I lost my job. The tickets were to go on sale the following Monday. I did not waver. I believed. I had the money put aside. And…I got a ticket.

What all could go wrong in those two months? So many things. I worried about them constantly. I clung to hope and that ticket, and did everything in my power to ensure the dream was protected. But so much was not in my power. My mind was full of scenarios, many of them far-fetched, but some not at all. After all, hadn’t I gone to a performance of a Shostakovich symphony once where the soloist had taken ill? Friends around me came down with COVID. Every time I went out, especially over the last couple of weeks, I worried about that. It was a razor’s edge I walked, especially after I found out I could attend the CWH 50th Anniversary event. That was an awful lot of people just a few days before the concert.

It was enough that yesterday, sitting in a sold-out Carnegie Hall, when the concert was a little late to start, I worried again. Had something happened?

Nearly three hours later, something had happened. Something very, very, special.

The route is familiar now, although there was an extra stop to pick up a Lego spaceship at a Target for my husband. The fall leaves were on the back end of peak as the colours began to drain out of October. A cold drizzle mixed with the first snowflakes of the season in the early hours of the trip, though by the time I hit the higher elevations, where the greys were already starting to dominate on the hillsides, the sun began to reemerge. I reached the hotel, checked in, changed my clothes, and headed downtown. I’d hoped to visit the 9/11 museum, but it being closed on Tuesdays meant that I decided to revisit the USS Intrepid instead. The museum had gained a space shuttle since I’d visited a dozen years ago, and I am always up for the pungent, oil-laden aroma of a WW2-era aircraft carrier, plus I know quite a bit more about the aircraft on display there now. It was worth a revisit, although I didn’t much care for the $50 I paid for parking. I debated driving down to the World Trade Center memorial (which, unlike the museum, is open daily) but finally decided to park and walk around until the concert hall opened at 7 pm. I wandered down to Times Square, and then finally ended up in a Starbucks across from the theatre that John Oliver broadcasts from.

Carnegie Hall–the building–doesn’t jump out at you in terms of architecture. In fact, I drove past it twice while looking for parking. It doesn’t help that it’s partially covered in scaffolding at the moment. But inside is acoustical perfection. This is a hall whose first concert featured Tchaikovsky conducting his own works.

The main concert hall–the one people think of when they hear “Carnegie Hall”, the one that was on The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel–is named after violinist Isaac Stern, who helped save the building when it looked like it might be torn down after the new (at the time) concert space for the NY Philharmonic was constructed. Everything that that hall was not, Carnegie was–historic, somehow intimate (despite its 2800+ seats) and most importantly, an amazing performance space. But saying those things is different than actually experiencing them.

From the perspective of the audience, the hall doesn’t look big. The decor is understated. I was in row X on the parquet (main floor). There were probably eight or nine rows behind me, plus the various tiers (balconies). The seats are covered in red velvet, and are a little short on leg room–in fact, the man in front of me, while trying to settle into his seat, kept knocking against my knees and then had the temerity to ask me to “quit bumping his seat.” I apologized for my long legs and tucked them back. However, the seats are plenty wide so I never felt crowded. The audience itself seemed to be well seeded with piano nerds. A man just ahead of me had a score to follow along with, and the man beside me clearly, by the movements of his hands, had played the work before.

The concert itself was simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. Never before have I felt so close to a performer. That may have been partly the hall, but a lot was Levit himself. His attire was casual–loose fitting shirt and pants–and his whole attitude was completely lacking in pretense. From the moment he started playing, it was if the audience was there, back in his living room, during a live stream during lockdown. Sometimes he would gesture with an unoccupied hand, or bend over the keys, or seem to caress them. And the first notes–the C major prelude–so simple, so clear, like the autumn sunlight flickering off of the Susquehanna River–so perfect.

I mentioned before that this work is rarely performed in one sitting. I now understand why. It’s an extraordinary commitment by both the pianist and the audience to a very long journey, to not simply slog out what is essentially 48 individual pieces–half of them highly technical fugues–but to find in each one not just the voice of the composer, but the voice of the interpreter. In a concert, there is no doing a crossword or scrolling Facebook or driving through the countryside while the music plays in the background. You, the audience member, are focused on the music alone and on the images that the pianist can conjure. That is a lot of burden to place on the shoulders of a single performer with a single instrument, with only a 20 minute break between two huge sections of about an hour and 15 minutes each. I cannot overemphasize how intense a commitment this is. A piano concerto is usually 40 minutes, tops (often much shorter), with an entire orchestra in dialogue with the soloist. A solo piano concert might run 90 minutes (plus 15 minutes for an intermission), with usually three or four different works. This was nearly three hours long. There were indications in the second half that Levit felt that weight as well. He’d shake out one of his hands or shift around in his seat to stretch out his legs (much in the way I do in the midst of a long drive). His shoulders would slump in between sets of preludes and fugues, and then he’d pull up and start again. Yet, there was a special kind of energy and intensity that this imbued that was palpable. I had eagerly awaited my favourite prelude, no. 14, with its alarm-bell-like octave tremolos and ominous deep notes. This is usually played quite loudly, with a towering crescendo in the middle; but although Levit started out loud, his version dropped right off a cliff, with the tremolos barely audible under a drained, dissonant melody. The anger was just sucked right out from the piece, leaving only an exhausted impression of something having gone very, very wrong. And it was somehow so right. I saw the piece in a new, entirely valid way. The anger and intensity instead moved over to the furious 15th prelude and its chromatic, nearly atonal fugue. I heard, in this work, the Shostakovich of his first piano concerto in the prelude and then the Shostakovich of his first piano sonata in the fugue. At the end of this one, there was a palpable exhale of breath and a few muttered “wows” from the audience, which Levit acknowledged–one of the few times, other than at the beginning and end of each half, that he did so. (I should note, because I note these things, that the 15th prelude is right about at the inverse golden ratio point of the series).

But there was, at the end, the final fugue. No. 24 is in D minor, the same key as the 5th symphony, and some have seen parallels in the ending of that symphony with the ending of the 24th prelude (particularly the “extended Picardy third” that is present in both of them.) One reason I don’t like the Bernstein approach to ending the 5th is that it completely bypasses the enormous, repeated ratcheting up and release of tension that happens several times in the final bars. Most interpreters of the 24th fugue seem to pick up on this as well, but Levit took it to a new level–and in doing so, evoked the 5th symphony in a way that only someone who understands what Shostakovich does with D minor can.

The performance was all that I wanted it to be, and the rest of the audience agreed (including the woman who lept to her feet before Levit had even relaxed on the final chord). I lost track of how many times he was called back to the stage. No one cried for an encore–we all respected what he had just done for that. Any more would have been wrong.

Proof of life.

Destination achieved.

Postscript: I will share photos from the Intrepid in a subsequent post, as well as those from my visit today to the fabulous and amazing Corning Museum of Glass.