Book reviews: “The Tyranny of Tradition in Piano Teaching”
This is one of the most informed and thought-provoking books about piano playing and education to have appeared in recent years.Benjamin Ivry / International Piano (UK)
Mr. Ponce archived concert reviews
New York Magazine – May 13, 1985
Alice Tully Hall solo recital
By Peter G. Davis
Walter Ponce, an exceptionally talented pianist but one scarcely known to the general public, even though he is no stranger to New York’s concert stages… the audience contained many distinguished musicians who know this pianist’s worth and were eager to hear him play…
Ponce’s program focused on four composers and four contrasting aspects of the Romantic repertoire… From most any point of view, these were exciting, deeply satisfying performances. His playing invariably generates glowing reviews that always seem to lead off by asking the same question: Where has such an extraordinary pianist been hiding? Consistent critical approval and the high esteem of his peers are all very well but Ponce’s career has so far obstinately refused to gather momentum. Never having heard him in person before, I was skeptical and attended his recital only after several trustworthy friends in the business had urged me not to miss him. You will not regret it, they said, because this pianist is definitely special. They were right.
From most any point of view, these were exciting, deeply satisfying performances. Considered as an exercise in pure keyboard technique, Ponce’s playing could hardly have shown more discipline, muscular control, or imaginative use of the piano’s expressive resources. Better still is his ability to define and articulate each score with such balanced precision and unforced eloquence, creating a beautifully proportioned musical context that allows the composer to speak naturally and spontaneously, in his own voice. Ironically, a pianist like Ponce, who serves the composer so scrupulously and selflessly, will always have a tough battle impressing a “general” audience. That amorphous body responds instantly inly to musicians with more tangibly idiosyncratic and sharply contoured interpretative personalities, even if this results in distorted performances that go directly against the grain of the music.
Chicago Tribune – February 17, 1994
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Georg Solti, conductor
Beethoven Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, “Emperor”
By Alan G. Artner
Ponce Packs Grace, Power in CSO Debut
Walter Ponce included Beethoven in his debut recital here a year ago, but not until Thursday night at Orchestra Hall did his affinity for the composer really show itself off. Ponce joined Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an account of Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto that proved muscular only when it had to be and otherwise was gently lyrical.
The Bolivian-born American pianist, now 49, articulated every note, observing the subtlest dynamic markings while at the same time avoiding pedantry through an overall faithfulness to poetic content.
This was far from the sharp-edged and clattery performances Solti and Vladimir Ashkenazy gave nearly 25 years ago at the time of their London recording. Solti no longer pushes hard in the music; and wind solos, in particular, were fine-toned and relaxed, a nice complement to Ponce’s subtly expressive shadings.
The slow movement sounded limpid, cool and always forward moving, yet Solti was more pliant here than in the intermezzo of last week’s Schumann Concerto, as if charmed out of his strongly controlling role into real collaboration by Ponce’s delicate touch.
Little the pianist did drew undue attention to himself. And when the music called for power, his firm rounded tone remained dense and beautiful focused, giving the feeling of something held in reserve, present but unsummoned.
It was more a serious than joyous performance, though Ponce appeared to enjoy himself, occasionally playing in the orchestral tuttis, where others reach for handkerchiefs to mop their brows.
Some of those others had greater physical energy or spiritual repose in their playing. Ponce kept both qualities in balance, making a CSO debut of unusual sanity, grace, polish and measure.
The New York Times – February 22, 1973
New York Debut Recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Allen Hughes
Grace and Ability of Pianist, Displayed in Debut.
Each music season brings its quota of surprises, and Walter Ponce’s New York debut recital at the Metropolitan Museum on Tuesday night might qualify as one of the current winter crop.
This is not just because his playing was of more than ordinary interest in itself but because he has emerged without fanfare as a solo performer after having been around for some time.
The three Scarlatti sonatas were done to a turn, with every effect polished to high luster. The Liszt had great sweep and bravura, and the slow, quiet portion was particularly sensitive in its projection of the harmonic adventures it offers. Part of the final section went almost out of control in a pursuit of speed that became hectic, but the lapse here was only momentary.
The Beethoven was played respectfully, which is to say well enough, and the concluding Ginastera sonata was a thing of extraordinary brilliance and momentum.
It all added up to an impressive showing for a man who up to now has kept his virtuosity and musical personality to himself in these parts.
High Fidelity/Musical America – February 1973
New York Debut Solo Recital, Metropolitan Museum of Art
By Harris Goldsmith
It would hardly be accurate to call Walter Ponce an unknown quantity: the Bolivian-born pianist has been a member of the Aeolian Chamber Players and has spent at least two years at the Marlboro Festival (MUSICAL AMERICA noted his career a year or two ago in a series of profiles of deserving young artists). But rarely has a top-flight solo bow been accomplished with less fanfare and fuss than Ponce’s at Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on February 20, in the Metropolitan Museum’s Young Artists Series.
Ponce is basically a romantic player. He knows how to use rubato soaringly, how to thunder in the grand manner, how to caress a line or phrase in the most loving fashion. Because of this, his account of the formidable Liszt B minor Sonata was one to cherish. It was a very personal conception with many individualistic accentuations and wide tempo variations. And yet Ponce never permitted the work to sprawl or careen out of control. One of the secrets to his success was his splendid, patrician instinct for separating relatively ornamental filigree and what was structurally essential. He always allowed one to see the forest uncluttered by the trees. This was Liszt playing in the grand manner, but without the bombastic pounding or the sentimentality that cheapens so many “idiomatic” accounts of this oddly schizophrenic music.
The distance from Liszt to Beethoven and Scarlatti is a formidable one, and yet Ponce effected the stylistic change of climate remarkably well. His three Scarlatti sonatas had chaste proportions, delicate colors, and a real soul. Beethoven Op. 90—one of the more romantic sonatas—was given a cogent reading with well-chosen tempos, though I suspect that Ponce’s success in this genre is more acquired than natural. Some of the Beethovenian granite was ever so slightly softened. The more I hear Ginastera’s 1952 Sonata, the more I like it. It has as much glitter as, say, Samuel Barber’s famous work in the same form, but also a far less synthetic aestheticism. The work is trimly proportioned, and never allowed to outstay its welcome. Ponce has all the scintillating technique required, but chose to stress poetic rather than digital values. Indeed, he made an absorbing experience out of everything he played.
Great pianists at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall Piano Series
Chicago Tribune – March 7, 1994
Solo Recital at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall
By Dan Tucker
Walter Ponce’s recital Sunday at Orchestra Hall was notable for brilliant pianism… The Bolivian-born Ponce has technique enough for two pianists: a fluid command of the keyboard that lets him toss off Liszt’s most intricate pianistic puzzles… spectacular playing of two composers whose language Ponce speaks like a native. One of them, Olivier Messiaen, came with a surprise: a completely darkened hall.
The work was “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus,” one of Messiaen’s “Twenty Meditations on the Child Jesus.” As Ponce explained, the composer wanted it played in darkness in memory of the time when it was written, the Nazi occupation of Paris.
The piece might have been equally effective with the lights on, but it was memorable to hear its glowing, pulsing clusters of tone with no visual distraction.
Ponce concluded with three Liszt pieces. This was delectable playing, done with an electric crackle that Liszt himself would have applauded.
San Antonio Express-News, February 28, 1998
San Antonio Symphony
Allan Gilbert, guest conductor
Walter Ponce, piano
Beethoven Concerto no. 4 in G major
By Mike Greenberg
Crystalline tone, clarity of line and unflagging taste were the hallmarks of pianist Walter Ponce’s intimate account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the San Antonio Symphony on Thursday.
Ponce was a quietly commanding performance – commanding not by dint of force or flash, but by virtue of poise and unfussy eloquence. Ponce’s considerable technique was turned always to musical purposes.
Yes, he dashed off Beethoven’s mercurial runs with impressive evenness, elegant touch and bell- like tone, but mere technical prowess was just the means. The end that Ponce constantly kept in view was to reveal the total structure.
In the slow movement, Ponce spun long lines that were firmly supported, delineating the musculature of the music.
The long cadenza in the first movement was carefully considered: There were moments of brilliance, of course, and a rhythmic angularity and tempo freedom that seemed to bring out Ponce’s personal response to the music. But above all the cadenza just made sense.
The New York Times – March 6, 1984
Solo recital at Carnegie Recital Hall
By Bernard Holland
Walter Ponce Offers Recital at Carnegie.
Mr. Ponce’s performances had a seriousness of purpose and a stylistic and grammatical correctness that his pupils would do well to emulate.
In the five Scarlatti Sonatas, one felt everywhere a resolute steadiness of tempo and a focused energy. Mr. Ponce used the terraced dynamics of harpsichord style here, but periodically there were also the softenings of tone and pedal effects that only the piano allows.
His playing of the Schubert B flat Sonata was the kind that does us all good to hear once in a while. Mr. Ponce never really touched any of the music’s mysteries, but his straightforwardness and scrupulous simplicity washed away a lot of this sonata’s accumulated interpretive sludge. He seemed most relaxed and free flowing in Chopin’s B minor Sonata, and it was here that his reliable technique – with its efficient dexterity and bright, hard tone – served him best.
Chicago Tribune – March 6, 1994
Walter Ponce Interview
By John von Rhein
Short, balding and middle-aged, Walter Ponce hardly fits the image of a sexy young firebrand of the keyboard-the kind of performer the classical music industry loves to exploit and expects to sell oodles of tickets and recordings.
Which helps to explain why a pianist several music industry professionals consider an exceptional talent is anything but a household name to the concert-going public.
Opinions pro and con about the 48-year-old, Bolivia-born, Juilliard-trained pianist are certain to be rife during the intermission of his recital at 3 p.m. Sunday in Orchestra Hall. The Allied Arts event-which holds Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata as well as works by Mozart, Messiaen and Liszt-will mark his downtown debut.
Where, you may ask, has Ponce been hiding? For the last 22 years, he has been working as a piano professor at the State University of New York in upstate Binghamton. He leads the comfortable life of a tenured academic. And although he has performed concerts and recitals throughout the U.S. and Europe, even developing a kind of cult following, he always has shied away from the pressures of a fast-track career. Now he is ready to submit to them. Why did he wait so long?
“I wasn’t the sort of person who aggressively pursues a career,” admits the pianist, a former student of the late Sascha Gorodnitzki at Juilliard. “That, in turn, had to do with the fact that for many years I was not a strong believer in my own ability. When you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t go through hell to achieve what you want.”
Better late than never, Ponce gradually defined a musical identity that would give him the self-confidence to throw himself into the lion’s den of a high-pro-file career. He recently engaged one of the best managers in the business, Laurence Tucker of Columbia Artists Management, and with his help and that of other powerful colleagues, Ponce is laboring to make up for lost time.
He has auditioned for Daniel Barenboim and Georg Solti, both of whom reportedly were impressed by his playing. It was on the strength of their recommendations that the Chicago Symphony management engaged him for this recital.
Tucker agrees Ponce’s self-effacing nature has made him his own worst enemy. “I told Walter he could use a little positive arrogance. With any great artist there is a certain arrogance in the way they walk or act or speak, that I think he needs,” says the CAMI vice president.
There is a larger problem with marketing artists like Ponce, as Tucker concedes. “Recitals are dead in this country, except in certain places. Concert managers are interested only in two types of artists: those who sell and young artists who are hot. Middle-range artists like Walter are left out in the cold, unless they get a certain kind of break.”
Robert Levin wants to see Ponce get that big break. He is president of his own performing arts consulting firm, Robert Levin Associates, in Highland Park and is working to get Ponce’s name in front of more conductors. He goes so far as to compare Ponce’s “power and sensitivity” to Vladimir Horowitz’s, adding that “there is an unfussy and direct quality about his playing that is much like William Kapell’s.”
Extravagant praise, indeed, although tapes of live performances of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto and the Brahms Second circulating in the “pirate” underground demonstrate Ponce certainly does have the chops, as the jazzmen say.
“Everybody in New York is always giving you musical steroids so that you can grow faster, play faster, mature faster. In the end, it doesn’t work. Conservatories exist to make competitors out of their students. I wasn’t competitive, because I was always afraid of failure.
“In retrospect,” says Ponce, who dropped out of the Cliburn and Levintritt competitions at the last moment because of his lack of confidence, “I would have entered every competition I could have, failed and learned from the experience. Now I encourage my students to fail 100 times. If they fail, they are still a success for having been through the experience of a competition.”
Whether his Chicago recital is a success, failure or something in between, Ponce doesn’t seem worried about his future. “I feel very strongly about what I’m doing,” he declares. “Now I’ll probably have the opportunity of playing with better orchestras than ever before.”
At long last, the mild-mannered pianist from South America is running with the big boys. Perhaps his time has finally arrived.
The Sunday Press, May – 1983, Binghamton, New York
John Covelli, conductor
Walter Ponce, piano
Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor
By Gene Gray
The highlight of the evening was pianist Walter Ponce’s magnificent performance of the Rachmaninoff Concerto, a work that is at once subtle, delicate, and terrifically difficult.
Ponce…was simply awesome in his performance, and if that sounds like too many adjectives are being thrown around, listen when WSKG public radio broadcasts the performance at a later date.
You will hear a performance that will take its place as one of the memorable concerts. Ponce attacked the piece with confidence that transmitted itself to the orchestra which, under Covelli’s brilliant direction, has rarely performed as well.
The audience of nearly 1,500 strong, gave Ponce a long standing ovation, an ovation that was certainly deserved.
The Rachmaninoff…is breathtaking in its pianistic complexity. The pianist is faced with an ever-expanding series of heights he must scale in terms of tempo changes and mood. The pianist literally carries the entire work and, if he lets down one moment, the work suffers. Ponce was at his peak and the concerto was done to a fine turn.
Herald-Journal, Syracuse, New York – February 26, 1990
Syracuse Symphony Orchestra
Fabio Mechetti, conductor
Walter Ponce, piano
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor
By Grant Podelco
There was a wonderful moment during Sunday’s all-Tchaikovsky matinee program by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra when guest pianist Walter Ponce held both audience and musicians transfixed.
It was somewhere deep into the magnificent first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, the afternoon’s first piece, and Ponce’s remarkable fluid technique seemed to have everyone hypnotized. Not a cough or a sniffle or the rustle of a program could be heard. Even SSO Associate Conductor Fabio Mechetti, on the podium, turned his head to get a better listen. That Ponce could elicit such a reaction from this concert favorite tells you something about the pianist.
He’s a big man in front of the piano, and he’s exciting to watch. Ponce’s style is not the youthful vigor seen in pianist Peter Orth’s recent SSO performance. Ponce assumes a more mature attack. But it’s no less riveting for its lack of theatrics. In his own way, Ponce is charismatic on the stage, with a tone that’s clear and true, his hands performing their own ballet above the keys.
The Bolivian-born pianist took none of the work’s inherent audience appeal for granted and delivered an absorbing performance notable as much for its clarity as for its emotion. The orchestra, energized by Ponce’s presence, was both tender and urgent.
Taking their bows, Ponce and Mechetti were each eager to give credit to the other. It was Ponce who deserved the acclaim.
The Post-Standard, Syracuse, New York, February 26, 1990
Fabio Mechetti, conductor
Walter Ponce, piano
Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor
By Larry McGinn
The afternoon’s soloist was Walter Ponce, who has appeared in recital and concert around the world. The Bolivian-born pianist is also a champion of contemporary works.
His way with the most famous of the Tchaikovsky concertos was technically expert and interpretively straightforward. His dynamic range was very wide, under seamless control, as he demonstrated a flawless diminuendo in the first movement. The cadenza brought forth passages of extraordinary limpid playing.
The News Journal (Delaware), October 8, 1993
Brahms Concerto No. 2 in Bb major
Stephen Gunzenhauser, conductor
Walter Ponce, Piano
By Tom Butler
The concert featured a blend of classical and modern music…and a fine performance by Walter Ponce of Brahms’ marathon Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra.
Walter Ponce is a brilliant, if rather showy soloist. But his style held up well in Brahms’ piano concerto written in 1881. Longer that some symphonies, the concerto demands endurance as well as artistry. Ponce played the majestic solo runs of the concluding Allegretto with as much panache as he did the opening notes.
The orchestra, relishing the lush Brahms score, interacted beautifully with Ponce. The beautiful dialogue between cellos and piano in the Andante movement was a fine example of this artistic interaction.
San Francisco Examiner, May 14, 1984
Chamber Soloists of San Francisco
Solo and chamber works
By Alla Ulrich
No doubt about it—Ponce was the main event yesterday, and Scriabin was his knockout punch. The pianist went right to the heart of the Russian composer’s chromatic universe, shaping his metrically bewildering creations, like the Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp minor, Op. 53, with the requisite mixture of fire and silk. There’s a diamante brilliance about Ponce’s playing and a sense of the arching line that makes one overlook his casual attention to dynamics. This was exceptional pianism.
Three Scriabin miniatures preceded the sonata. In turn, Ponce tended to the wistful Schumannesque line of the “Album Leaf” Op. 45, No. 1; caught the dancing lilt of the Mazurka Op. 25, No. 3, and communicated the skittish clarity of the Prelude Op. 15, No. 2, with brilliant right-hand passage work.
Palm Beach Daily News, January 7, 1983
West Palm Auditorium
By Juliette deMarcellus
The Civic Association, which brings a concert series to the West Palm Beach Auditorium during each season, is to be congratulated on the appearance of pianist Walter Ponce Wednesday evening. The Civic Series presented a pianist…who gave a first rate performance: intelligent, understanding, thoughtful, controlled and with moments that were not only beautiful, but moving.
He gave the kind of performance that provokes not only a reconsideration of the works he played, but honest to goodness enjoyment. One listened to every note he played.
Ponce played a program of familiar music, but in an interesting balance. He opened with the Kinderscenen of Schumann. This was followed with the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, which however often it is played and heard, remains a test for any pianist technically and musically. Its popularity has not made it stale because it remains a feat of understanding and ability. The second half consisted of the four Chopin Scherzos, rarely heard together like this and in many ways the hardest of his works to interpret.
The Kinderscenen are a test for the mature understanding of a pianist. These strange, touching evocations of 19th century childhood were by turns, contemplative, mischievous, sad and sweet. His touch is beautiful and he brought to these introverted works a sense of improvisation. He was able to catch the quality of Schumann that makes it sound as if these pieces were being thought out as he went along. This feeling is written into the music, but rarely caught. Ponce gave these little pieces a pool of thoughtful silence into which he gave them wit, tonal beauty and much understanding.
The Appassionata was interestingly approached. Opening from an extreme pianissimo he gave the work a dynamic range that allowed for its troubled existential substance to appear from within. He evidently had a great insight into the work and had understood that this is Beethoven, the Classicist writing.
The second half of Scherzi was equally interesting. He caught the slightly grotesque quality of Chopin’s idea of a joke, and the lyrical middle sections of each of these pieces were nothing sort of exquisite. This is a pianist that understands that there is more to Chopin than wishy-washy sentiment and a pretty touch.
The Nocturne with which he ended the program was very beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful piece of the evening. It was ironical, a little cynical, lyrical but witty and very touching.
Palm Beach Post – January 7, 1983
West Palm Auditorium
By Thelma Newman
Ponce’s concert was an interesting one. He opened with Robert Schumann’s deceptively simple Kinderscenen (Scenes of a Childhood, Op. 13). It takes a fully mature artist to contemplate the world of children from a distance and to draw the 13 variegated sketches. They were sensitively played.
It was in his performance of Chopin’s Four Scherzos that Walter Ponce really demonstrated his artistry not only as a technician, but also as a man who understands the dark side of Frederic Chopin. There is little humor in his Scherzos. And what there is is wry, rugged and often bitter. But the music runs the gamut of virtuoso challenges.
And this was where Walter Ponce’s playing was exceptional. It was powerful playing, but it was acutely aware of every emotional corner. Technically, it was a tour de force.
Washington Star News, Washington D.C. – January 11, 1974
Solo Recital at the Pan American Union
By Irving Lowens
Walter Ponce played his first local recital in the Pan American Union. It was a most impressive debut.
The evening started out in a deceptively quiet vein, but before Ponce had reached the end of his opening Scarlatti group, it was clear that a big, melodramatic virtuoso was at the keyboard. The contrasts he achieved in the G major Sonata were startling in their boldness, presaging the heaven-storming character of the Liszt that was to come.
The New York Times – December 23, 1970
Town Hall Recital
Jean-Jacques Kantorow, violin
Walter Ponce, piano
By Theodore Strongin
Superb chamber music playing of the most joyful sort was heard at the violin recital of Jean‐Jacques Kantorow Monday night at Town Hall on the Young Concert Artists Series.
And since chamber music takes at least, two participants, if follows that Walter Ponce, pianist, billed merely as “assisted by” really was “equal to.”
It was not a matter of competition between the two men. They were complements to each other, always in agreement as to phrase details and larger shapes and always responsive like lightning. As the cliché says, “they played like one man,” truly. But they went further. They retained their individuality while so doing.
El Norte, Monterrey (Mexico) – September 24, 1999
Sala San Pedro
By Alejandro Fernández
Ponce obtuvo de su instrumento no solamente el refinando virtuosismo inherente a la obra, sino también un sonido construido con igual bravura y consistencia.
Para terminar su concierto, el pianista ofreció la “Tarantella,” tercer episodio del cuaderno “Venezia e Napoli” del mismo Liszt. En esta obra Ponce pareció resumir todo su interés y su dominio por la música del compositor Húngaro. Con igual maestría deleitó en la delicada parte cantábile de la “Canzona Napolitana” como en su sección final, un “Prestissimo” que descargo un virtuosismo subyugante.
South Florida Classical Review, Miami Beach (Florida) – May 21, 2011
By Alan Becker
Liszt’s Hymme de L’Enfant a son Reveil… was performed with refinement and achingly beautiful attention to the melodic line. This refinement was apparent also in the great Sonata in B minor, the Everest of Liszt’s piano achievements. While Ponce is certainly not lacking in technical ability, display and empty rhetoric is not a major part of his pianistic make up. The radical single-movement structure was held together perfectly in the pianist’s subtle control of all dynamic ranges, along with his remarkable command of rubato. In these days, when so many pianists tackle the Sonata, it is refreshing to find the maturity Ponce brings to this creation, along with all the finger dexterity one could wish for. The composer’s bicentennial year celebration was extremely well served.
The New York Times – October 12, 1972 (excerpts)
Aeolian Chamber Players
New York Premiere of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae
By Donald Henahan
Music: Crumb’s Touch
Even among whales there are greater and lesser specimens. George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae,” which was performed for the first time here on Tuesday night by the Aeolian Chamber Players, sounded like one of the lesser creatures in the composer’s increasingly impressive collection. On first immersion, the score (subtitled “Voice of the Whale”) caught one’s fancy chiefly for Mr. Crumb’s exceptional ability to draw evocative sonorities out of instruments.
There were recognizable Crumb touches everywhere, too, including the familiar repeated falling intervals to suggest lonely keening cries. The three instruments—piano, flute and cello—were amplified by means of contact microphones, allowing Mr. Crumb to create striking sonorities inevitably suggestive of gulls’ cries or surf or the echoes of the vasty deep.
“Vox Balaenae” took the form of a Vocalise, five Variations each named for a geological era, and a concluding Sea‐Nocturne in a rather simple melodic style. The players entered wearing masks, in accordance with the composer’s intention of creating an impersonal mood, but the pianist, Walter Ponce, who wears glasses, took his off to play.
The remarkable young Aeolian group also offered Ives’s Largo, Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms II,” Pleskow’s “Per Vege Viene” and Bartók’s “Contrasts,” all care fully prepared and precisely played. Besides Mr. Ponce, the Aeolians (resident artists at Bowdoin College) are made up of Lewis Kaplan, violin; Jerry Grossman, cello; Erich Graf, flute, and Richard Wasley, clarinet.
A few months later, Jerry Grossman, Erich Graf and Walter Ponce recorded George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) under the guidance of the composer.
A comment from Walter Ponce, regarding an article by Bernard Holland in The New York Times
On Saturday, March 3, 1984, I played a solo recital as part of Carnegie Hall’s Emerging Artists Series. The following Tuesday, March 6, Bernard Holland, an important critic of The New York Times, wrote a mildly positive review (see Reviews). That weekend, March 11, in the Arts and Music section of The New York Times, Mr. Holland wrote what was known as a “thinking piece,” a weekly Sunday edition editorial-like commentary. These were not reviews, but opinions exploring relevant topics of the time in the music world.
In this particular “thinking piece” he devoted his essay to my March 3 performance of the Schubert Sonata in B-flat. It did create a lot of buzz. Mr. Holland’s views were not only provocative but, in my opinion, unfair. Several musicians, including the former President of Mannes College, wrote letters to Mr. Holland taking exception for what they felt was the inconsistency of some of his reviews criticizing careless performances versus, in this case, disparaging the diligence of notes and music in my playing.
It also illustrates a different generation: Bernard Holland was ahead of his time. Nowadays, hygiene is imperative. Not long ago The New York Times main critic, Anthony Tommasini, wrote that Alfred Cortot “would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now” on account of his playing “littered with clinkers.” In 2020 Bernard Holland would probably rave about my Schubert performance. For many pianists today, mistake-free playing matters above everything else—perhaps to compete with the engineered perfection of commercially recorded music. But in 1984, although we made every effort to play as clean as possible, most concert pianists were equally concerned with many other issues of sound, style, rhythmic accuracy, structural considerations, faithfulness to the composer, and so on.
Here is the complete “thinking piece” by Bernard Holland:
The New York Times – Sunday, March 11th, 1984
By Bernard Holland
The head of the piano department in an upstate university gave a rendering of Schubert’s mystical and mysterious B-flat sonata here not long ago that was more than a performance or not quite a performance, depending on your point of view. Its utter correctness, the total absence of grammatical or stylistic sin, stood on its own as music, but his playing also served as an admonishment to the wicked and an example for the virtuous.
Many virtuosos teach, but most are really advisers – taking finished players, recommending a phrasing here, a fingering there, counseling on the tricks of the concert stage and perhaps opening a door or two to prospective managers and patrons. Teachers, on the other hand, who both perform and are at the same time deeply involved in the building of techniques and the passing on of musical style find themselves in a very different situation. They help their students and learn about themselves by doing so. But danger is never far away.
Here, in any case, was a systematic demonstration and a model. While most unfinished students struggle to maintain a single tempo, our performer-teacher’s sense of movement was adamant in its oneness. Pupils cover up inner detail. Our pianist revealed all with blinding clarity. Pupils misplace accents. This performance’s use of emphasis expressed perfectly the shape of Schubert’s phrases.
Teachers (who only occasionally have the chance to be inspirational) predominantly trade in what is wrong. In their own playing, therefore, they make sure that nothing is. Unwitting mischief lies in all this rightness, which can exceed intended proportions, rise over the music and suck away its nourishment – like a tumor which is benign only to the casual beholder.
This Schubert, for example, was absolutely spotless. Scrubbed clean of all its magic, perhaps, but spotless nonetheless. One admired the impeccable hygiene, but soon longed for a little dirt in the corners, some human slovenliness for the spirit to wallow in a few minutes. There was much to learn but little to feel and enjoy. Perhaps, there is a kind of musicianship that is really too good for its own good.
From Walter Ponce: Epilog
Interestingly, three weeks before this “thinking piece” regarding my performance of the Schubert Sonata, Bernard Holland had written a “thinking piece” on February 19, 1984 about another (unnamed) musician. It started with this paragraph:
After a concert in Alice Tully Hall not long ago, two impressions lingered – how imaginative the music had been and what an interesting, serious player. The next thought came just as naturally – that professionally, this musician was going nowhere.Bernard Holland, New York Times, February 19, 1984