Part 4: In Close Quarters with Martha Argerich and Sergei Babayan
Endless hours of work, all-night rehearsals, backstage happenings, the concert, a collapse in the audience, and my “late” page-turn
These past three days were a whirlwind, and have felt exactly rather like five. To experience in the work, rehearsals, and behind-the-scenes life of two enigmatic great pianists—Sergei Babayan and Martha Argerich–is almost unthinkable. These days were apart from any sense of time and were dictated by the musical tasks at hand.
Because of my unique vantage point—an intimate look at the private world of artistic preparation and work, I must be especially careful in how I write this entry and to respect the privilege and trust I was given. What I can try to do is give a general sense of their uncompromising work, their incredible humanity, and the excitement I was able to derive from first-hand learning and observation.
Legend vs. Human Experience
Contrary to popular legends about Martha Argerich around the time of a concert as moody, unpredictable, and tempestuous, I witnessed personally her deeply caring, kind, shy, and charming nature in all aspects. There are also legends–some she cultivated herself in earlier years–that she rarely practices and somehow deploys her consummate virtuosity without effort. Instead, I found that she is a relentless musical laborer, practicing 8, 9, 10, or 11 hours or more each day–truly working tirelessly for results (The same holds true for Sergei Babayan.) Argerich’s intuition leads always, and she selflessly asks lots of questions from her musical colleagues, gathering all input without any sense of ego. The rapport and mutual support that existed between Babayan and Argerich is something I will not forget as long as I live.
I am struck again and again by the highly sensitive, even vulnerable nature of creative artists—their refusal to trust themselves and their abilities without unimaginable reserves of work. I witnessed all-night rehearsals and repetitions that seemed superhuman. For performers to give so openly and emotionally of themselves, time does not leave room to build illusions of personal defenses. For this reason, artists at work must be sequestered and protected, encouraged, and even loved.
June 30: The Day Before–Leisure, then Intensity
Boating on the Lake, Long Lines for Gelato, An All-night Rehearsal, and Pizza for Midnight Breakfast
The rehearsals have been going usually from about 9pm until 9am—as a result, today I woke up at 1. Late for my lunch meeting with three friends from London also visiting for the festival. I had little appetite.
A small rum cake afterwards produced so much actual rum that effects were felt. A walk along the lake shore. Nervous thoughts about the difficulty of following the score. Intoxicatingly beautiful and mild in the shade. The decision came to rent a paddleboat on the lake. Gelato afterwards was amazing also for the long lines awaiting a portion.
Suddenly, the Pace Changes
Long nap in the hotel—but suddenly the call came at 830pm. “A car will pick you right away to bring you to the Radio Studio. Be ready.” A quick ride up the mountain ended at the pizzeria. We picked up food and beverages for the artists. When we arrived, I saw the radio control room with the engineers, artists, and directors surrounding some concentrated task of unspecified intensity. I waited in silence backstage, guarding the pizzas. From everywhere, the sounds of rehearsing musicians. Fragments of Shostakovich Trio from the recording studio from the Maiskys. A Rachmaninov prelude from upstairs. A Chopin Sonata somewhere else. Noticing the backstage aesthetic is characteristic—austere, almost clinical, and yet it is the scenery behind the scenes for stage musicians.
I can only sit and wait–alone. My heart pounds. I have no idea how long the night would last, but surely it is long haul. My teacher and other musicians joined for food briefly to recharge. This pizza late night was breakfast for most of us. The Maiskys passed through and the cellist used the opportunity to recount more stories and tales—a favorite pastime of musicians. Suddenly the voice of Martha Argerich. She joins us and we all start telling stories as though purposely defying the fact of the grueling work lies ahead. We discussed physical conditioning routines and I demonstrated a stretch I learned in Cleveland. She asked me to help her learn. Then she showed even better ones. Suddenly the impulse for work began. Without words, they started.
Movement by movement, the piece is run through. Somehow, overnight, the level has gone up exponentially. More stories compared about the performing life, with much laughter and amusement. Then movement by movement work began, page by page. Many questions and suggestions exchanged. Some duet improvisations arose between movements, almost as though to shake off tension and pressure of the actual piece. Sergei Babayan has a remarkable gift for bringing lightness, humor, strength, and encouragement to Martha Argerich with tangible results. I could not believe how they sounded, as I was seated between them at close range. Arm technique, pedal, sound. Martha Argerich used something I had never witnessed: sympathetic resonance-pedal even when not playing. At some point after 2am, MA asks to practice for two hours alone, and I witnessed the work methods of SB for that period. Extremely intense and uncompromising. Physically demanding parts were exacted upon with deliberate varied methods.
A return to the hall. More Playing. Suddenly the two play from memory the orchestral part of Beethoven 1 as a duet–stunning playing. Then MA departs and SB practices in the hall. We are still there by 7am and the work is gone over and over. The acoustic of the performance space reveals more effective textures and volume balance.
July 1: Concert Day
Recording, rehearsal, studio recording session, backstage, and concert
Not enough sleep. Taxi to Radio. I feel more nervous turning for this project than I do for playing my own performances. There is an electricity in the air at the hall. Practicing then a three hour studio recording session. Very intense atmosphere with efficient work. The two artists recorded repeated takes, and kept doing them, because each successive take was better. Incredible peaceful energy from the recording producer. The recording is astonishingly successful. After the conclusion, in a graceful, fleeting, and unrepeatable moment, Sergei Babayan improvised a number in the style of a Russian tango, and Martha Argerich briefly got up and danced to the music.
It is now 730—one hour to show time. The dressing rooms behind the scenes have many musicians, performers, assistants, and nervous stagehands. A knock at the door 5 minutes before the curtain. It is Jacques Thelen, the famous/legendary manager. “I am Jacques Thelen.” “…Uh-huh,” I reply without expression, and I gently close the door in his face. Finally everybody is near the stage door. Private words of encouragement exchanged, with touching humanity. The enormity and difficulty of the task lies just behind the door.
The concert is broadcast all over the world. I was so focused on turning that I can hardly notice the quality of the performance. Each page I must turn has a different instruction and method to turn. In some places I am instructed to not turn, or even to turn late, for various musical reasons. Some people mistakenly thought I was not on task in one specific spot–I was not to turn until after the cue on the next page, otherwise I would have blocked MA’s view of SB when they needed to make an entrance at sight.
At some point, unnoticed to me but in fact to everybody in the audience, a lady in the third row of the audience goes unconscious and collapses, to the shock of everybody. Was the piece too intense for her? It cut into the audience reaction after the conclusion. The directors ran around in a panic backstage during the ovations. I walk onto stage holding the hand of MA’s grandson, age 5, both of us with flowers. He runs off.
Dinner with all afterwards, including many old friends from around the world. Lasts until wee hours but then MA runs off to practice Beethoven 1 for the upcoming finale concert.
Cafes and Restaurants in Town, Argerich Beethoven 1 Rehearsal at the Palace of the Congress—Unbearable Lightness of Being
Late start today. Lunch with three friends and gelato afterwards. Coffee with two friends from Berlin followed. Back at the Radio, meetings with many musicians and their family members in the courtyard over coffee and dinner. Early dinner with SB and MA joins as well. Separately, the little one falls into the pond as we predicted. We pull him out.
Rehearsal of Beethoven First Concerto. It is a run-through, without incident from the soloist. Astonishing ease and mastery. A dinner with MA and SB in small company. Stories and laughter last until the wee hours. MA’s nickname for me continues to be “Zoltán” which is in fact an old variation of my name. The lightness and humor of her jokes do not betray how seriously she is taking the Beethoven concert tomorrow, because it is necessary lightness… relief from the daily stress and relief needed in the life of a stage artist. Then with a smile to me and “Ciao!” she whisks off into the night, to return at 2am to practice the Beethoven First again.