RUSHTON CONCERT AFTERPLAY
On December 6 at Steiner auditorium in the Birmingham Museum of Art, pianist Zhang Haochen played with a very impressive resumé. He won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at the age of 19.
The concert program brochure gave an impressive list of symphony orchestras he has played with from Philadelphia to Hong Kong, but more importantly promised “a unique combination of deep musical sensitivity, fearless imagination, and spectacular virtuosity.” That was not an idle claim.
Now at the ripe old age of 21, Zhang Haochen (whose name is normally given backwards, with the family name last, according to the Western formula) played an international classical medley.
The concert began with an Italian flair: two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, their sparkling notes playful and pert, twirling all around their theme like an emboldened flirt who has taken a dare.
Then came Sonata 23 by Germany’s more pragmatic Ludwig Van, in F Minor key, “Apasionata,” deeply moody, ranging from lugubrious depths to highly ecstatic.
He followed that with four etudes by the Frenchman, Maurice Ravel, all lush and lascivious. You might be tempted to compare it to the rich cuisine, but the sound from the keys was bright, not heavy, with the quality of starlight, and transitioned to the depths of the fecund earth before rising again to germinate skyward, ascending to surpising heights of power. Even in their most cacophonous violence, the chords still carried an air redolent of flowers, drenched in wine.
Zhang concluded the program with a number he played at the Van Cliburn competition, the Spanish Rhapsody of Franz Liszt, and the Austrian-Spanish combination of nationalities did, in fact, convey the feel of Hapsburg hegemony with a martial flair that deems itself invulnerable yet is all too pregnable, as it actually was.
Zhang received four standing ovations, one for every European composer.
The encore included a wistful Chinese folk melody, translated to the instrument of Western power. It embodied a real quiet countryside feeling so poignant in the midst of teeming billions. It even somehow reminded me of the way photographs make music with color for those who care. I couldn’t quite see China but I could feel its immortal soul I share.
At least those are the notes I scribbled on my program. I brought my camera gear and sat where I could see the pianist’s hands, and I was dying to unleash the shutter, but the lighting was poor, and without asking I could tell the environment would not absorb the clicks without ruining the atmosphere. I’m not a conformist but I did not want to be ostracized by a whole roomful of people perturbed at having their concert disturbed, much less the museum docents and the piano player himself who would want to shoot me.
And, in truth, I was content not to focus my energy on my own artistic creations, but just to let Zhang’s musical poetry wash over me. The depth and quality of his playing was even more amazing considering the news I received afterwards that he was very sick, that he got off the plane three shades of pale--to put on such a sensitive and powerful performance.
When I was in the lobby after the concert thanking the sponsors of the wonderful evening of music, Mr.and Mrs. William Rushton (Mrs. Rushton can play pretty well herself), I mentioned to museum director Gail Andrews how much I wished I had recorded the movement of Haochen’s hands, and she said well you may want to try it because after the auditorium emptied and the lights were turned off, he was back at the piano, playing by himself in the dark.
So I returned to the performance hall anxious to try, but when I told my friend Rusty he admonished me for talking, even quietly--what a grossier, but Haochen didn’t care. I didn’t want to stop him to ask him if it was all right to photograph, so armed with the permission of the museum director I just clicked a couple shots in the dark from a few feet away.
Haochen looked up, asked if I were the photographer and if I would like to turn on the lights, while he kept on playing mellifluously.
But I pulled up the thumbnail on the digital screen and saw what appeared to be interesting and dramatic results in the dark with the only light coming from the stage door that was ajar. He took a look while the music kept flowing from his fingertips in synch, and he agreed, and asked if I could send him some pictures.
So I kept on shooting, following Haochen’s hands in the shadows, busily adjusting the aperture to accommodate what would normally be considered very poor light, but sometimes the best work comes from adjusting to what we are given--I call it acting like water. So I worked while the music flowed through me, and Haochen played on in a seamless melody while I shot right over his shoulder and followed his hands from inches away. It didn’t seem to bother him.
In the darkness I formed a shadow not created by light but conformed to his movements and the music so closely that, to my surprise, I realized I could smell the pianist, if not the mahogany and furniture polish of the piano. The music--though unillumined--had its own sound, color, and scent.
I loved this unplanned, uncontrolled moment, that spun out of the universe on its own, full blown with emotion (which is exactly what the country girl can’t stand, preferring her own futile and clumsy machinations, bent to her will). There with that contrasting dichotomy in mind, it was the case against Nietszche all over again.
But to step back into the moment, it was all movement and light from the music flowing from Haochen’s fingers, and the music of photography in my hands, sliding f-stops and shutterspeeds by feel in
the dark, working by instinct because I couldn’t even see the dials and meters.
Haochen played on for his own enjoyment and, I imagined, mine, as if he didn’t notice, effortlessly, but with total concentration. My focus was his hands. I was so close over his shoulder, we could probably smell each other as we swayed together. Someone was sweating, and I am not sure if it was him or me. I think I even caught a little of his flu bug, which I fought off the next day.
But I never felt music so poignantly as it played through me. I worked right through it. It fell off me like rain. I was imbued with it. As Haochen gave to me, I tried to take the picture.