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Monday, February 25, 2008

To be a great artist you must be not right!

This is what Konstantin Krimets said while sipping a beer at the outdoor terrace of the Moscow Conservatory restaurant. It was a sunny day of early summer in 2000, after the second recording session of the Miaskovsky cello concerto, and both of us were tired from the session and an afternoon of sightseeing. It had gone well. This was my first recording with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and the experience was very inspiring, stimulating, and rewarding at the same time.

I had met Krimets the Sunday before. As soon as I arrived in Moscow I requested a rehearsal with the conductor and a pianist so we cold go through the tempi. Krimets conveyed the message that I should go to his dacha – the weekend house that any respectable Muscovite owns and uses to recharge their batteries, and we would work there, and get to know each other and enjoy a little relaxing time (that meant a lot of Vodka). That would have been too complicated, so I asked him to meet me at a rehearsal room. He is a short man, with a round, protruding stomach, a red beard and a shiny head, looking a little like Lenin has a child with Friedrich Engels. After I played through the concerto, his first question was: “How did you dare turn down my invitation to visit my dacha and call me into the city on a Sunday.” Acting as translator, my friend Sam Teitel, a great diplomat, gave Krimets a very complimentary answer, praising his wisdom, generosity, and artistry, and explaining that we did not have transportation.

As main conductor of the Mosfilm studios for several decades, Krimets has great experience recording in the studio, and he knew well the Miaskovsky. His tempi were a little slow, but his command of the orchestra was indubitably strong. After the recording he continued his a-little-too-confident behavior, walking downtown Moscow with his shirt open, the hairy belly sticking out, hands behind his back, all while proclaiming that Stalin was a great man. Remember that Stalin killed millions of his people on his way to building a military empire encompassing many nations.

After a few days of working together, Krimets started using a few words in English. So now, we are relaxing with a beer, trying to make some conversation, some with a translator, and parts directly in English. I asked him about the recording and if he had any career advice. I recall him telling me that I would play the Elgar very beautifully, after which he said: “To be a great artist you must be not right.” My first thought was that he made a grammar mistake and meant something else, maybe that a performer has to be right in order to be an artist. When he repeated the same words, rather that disregard his comments, I started thinking. It went against all we are taught in school: to respect the tradition, the notation in the score, to carefully plan and build musical phrases, and when to breathe and how to change the bow, and to carefully analyze a work to discover the inherent truth, which we should dutifully attempt to bring out. And then, after a few seconds, it hit me. We have to make a composer’s work our own, and bend it and twisted and become it, and play it “real” and spontaneously as if we make it up on the spot, and do whatever it takes to a make it powerful so it moves people. If we play it pre-designed, pre-calculated, it is only canned and it will be one out of thousands of similar items. It doesn’t mean that we should not respect the score; it means that we must make the notes alive and take music beyond the score. Let go of inhibitions, and challenge the listener, be it a master, or a friend or somebody out there in the audience. And that was one moment in my life when I know I became a different musician.


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