Martha Argerich Project, Part 1

As part of an International Festival Society grant for my summer musical plans (including the Martha Argerich Project in Lugano) I am keeping a little daily log of the goings-on, because many of them have been extraordinary, weird, or surprising. This is a public blog post, so I tried my utmost to protect the privacy of all involved while recounting these stories.


Mid-day in Paris


Paris reflected through a market

Paris reflected through a market

A flight from a balmy Cleveland to Newark passed quickly because my flighty neighbors all wanted to speak, and all asked the same unlikely question “So, are you with The Orchestra?” …What is “The Orchestra”? I tell them that pianists usually play solo or as soloists with an orchestra, and their reaction usually betrays disappointment anyway.

It was the same thing—the same question repeatedly from a large group of friendly Texans–on the flight to Paris, so I feigned an interest in the TV and then actually delighted in an episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” Colin Firth as guest. Firth emphasized that previous successes fail to give him any sense of security in approaching a new project. This sounds familiar to stage musicians too~

Parisian market display. "How is it possible to run a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" -Charles de Gaulle

Parisian market display. “How is it possible to run a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” -Charles de Gaulle



After Paris (with two very longtime friends as my travel companions)—where we bumped into the distinguished cellist Amir Eldan vacationing from Oberlin–a TGV conveyed us and my newly-reunited suitcase to Basel, a city of medieval stock. It is almost a time portal into an older Europe.


The cleanliness of everything in Switzerland is beyond belief, as is the availability of wifi for facebookers on public transportation.


A must-see is the incredible collection of art at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel. The feature is currently 150 paintings and works from around the world by Max Ernst. The caged birds left an indelible impression on the passing musician.

"Forest and Dove" 1927 by Max Ernst (1891-1976)

“Forest and Dove” 1927 by Max Ernst (1891-1976)

Giacometti at Beyeler Foundation

Giacometti at Beyeler Foundation

A mountainous ride to Lugano via train was unforgettable and gave glimpses of medieval and Renaissance castles and churches.

Basel->Lugano Scenery

Basel-Lugano Scenery

The Lugano lakeshore currently has a series of enormous blue plastic snails around its perimeter. I shall try to find a photo soon. I always agreed that this beautiful lake did lack the presence of several large blue snails.

Lugano from the hotel

Lugano from the hotel

Angelich, Maisky, Babayan, and Argerich

An early breakfast at the sumptuous 19th-c hotel “Splendide Royal” with my friend Joe proved to be more than just pleasant; it was also a gathering point of the many musicians staying there. Over a feast of every food imaginable, I attempted to explain Martha Argerich’s influence in my teacher Sergei Babayan’s life and piano technique. At that moment, he walked in. It was the best possible surprise meeting, even after he had been up the entire night practicing alongside Martha Argerich, for the upcoming concerts. We were joined at the table by a similarly focused-looking Nicholas Angelich, who surprised with the warmth of his humanity and modesty. I am always amazed by how musicians wave off, dismissively, stories of their own successes recounted back to them. So many musicians passed through the room, some I had seen only in photos. The atmosphere of a nearby festival gave a distinct excitement.

Festival Musician's Hotel

Festival Musician’s Hotel

Backstage at the Radio hall at the top of the mountain proved to be very exciting. A brief stop in the restaurant was a pavilion-style who’s-who of the festival musicians. I reached for a glass of champagne. I noticed the table had endless bottles—all of exceptional quality. Several string players walked in—I saw Misha Maisky. I had planned on observing the concert through the broadcast control room alongside my teacher, but he encouraged me to listen from the hall after Mr.Maisky offered me his extra ticket. It turned out the seat was next to his, and he turned out to be an exceptionally avid and lively story-teller who recounted many tales of performances, moments when he felt magic could happen during performance, and why on other occasions not, and amusing tales about musicians and travels. Some people seem to be born to delight in telling stories, and he surely is one of them. I never thought such a legendary musician could be so open to younger ones—and to share so much doubled-over laughter upon first meeting.


A Four-Hour Concert

First was an arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for four pianos and two percussionists. It was excitingly rendered; I found it hard to discern orchestral textures in the ocean of piano sounds—I recently watched the BBC broadcast of Leonard Bernstein in the work, which is quite an unfair comparison. Here, the four page-turners seemed equally nervous to the performers, if not more. At one point, one of the pianists stared down at her fingers in horror—I think a nail had been bent.

Next was the most trenchant reading of the Prokofiev f minor Violin and Piano Sonata by Ilya Gringolts and Nicholas Angelich. The range of colors and emphasis of gestures, shapes, and interplay of instruments was on a transcendental level of mastery. I have studied this piece for years and realized tonight what an exponentially long way I still have yet to go. Angelich’s playing was so exacting and his entire self so invested in the music. One could sense that it would cause him suffering to even play one unpolarized chord. The effect was not calculated; the concert had fantastic and devastating emotional impact. No wonder when viewed walking from a distance he seems totally in his own world, probably already in the music.

Moments before starting the Tchaikovsky Trio

Moments before starting the Tchaikovsky Trio

After the intermission, Martha Argerich played the Tchaikovsky Trio. I was seated in a way that I had a clear view of the pedals. Argerich, as with Angelich, had infinitely varied levels of usage of pedal. Argerich’s playing through the years has increased in lightness and treble-bass polarity leans to higher sonorities; all is done through a sense of discovery and still maintains explosive temperament. Upon being introduced to her backstage, she expressed with the type of retrospective look of exacting artists wishing to still reach to greater heights, that the piece is an enormous undertaking.

The last part of the concert was an amazing spectacle. The 91 year old Ivry Gitlis and the young Mayu Kishima played the Bach Double Concerto. Gitlis, after curtain calls and rhythmic clapping returned to repeat a movement. In between, he sat down and started improvising on the themes… some other musicians played along with the moment and provided jazzy improvised backups. It was a delightful, brief moment, unplanned, drawing amusement from the crowd. I can hardly wait for the next concerts. Tonight: solo recital Sergei Babayan.

© Copyright 2017 Zsolt Bognar