Thoughts on character over a glass of bourbon: reflections on a recital

Sitting after the recital drinking with pianist Michael Brown (him: bourbon, me: a stiff cup of chamomile tea, neat) the issue of character came up, specifically as in “can you enjoy an artist’s work if the guy was a jerk?” Wagner came to mind followed by others such as Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Woody Allen. How does it affect our appreciation of the art based on what we think of the artist? It is an uncomfortable subject and not all great artists are great human beings.

That said, character is something a live audience can sometimes detect. As the great pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim said: “The most important and challenging thing for a musician is to live with the schizophrenia of extreme modesty and extreme self-assurance.” At the piano recital on Saturday night, I felt like Michael Brown’s character came through; he was not performing for us as much as sharing his music. Some of that was assisted by the extraordinary setting: the proportions of the room and the warmth and generosity of hosts Steve and Diedre Girard. The immediacy of the space allowed the listener to experience first-hand the visceral aspect of Michael’s playing on this demanding program.

The recital began with Chopin’s F# Major Barcarolle evoking the gentle rhythms of water followed by one of Michael’s own compositions, a soulful mini-barcarolle that paid homage to the spirit of the earlier work without imitating it. He then played Mendelssohn’s brilliant set of Variations sérieuses which simmered to a gradual boil over a series of increasingly hair-raising variations. Composed to raise funds for a statue of Beethoven in his birthplace it was part of a series of commissions, the others of which were written by Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin. Has there ever been such an all-star team of composers selected for the same commission?

Michael then turned to the heart of the program, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. The famous opening was unusually soft, even tender, and a perfect first step on the journey that this piece is all about. If the first movement was transcendent, the lilting second movement felt very much of this earth with a simplicity that was deceptively child-like at times. In the tempestuous final movement, Michael flexed his muscles proving he could be virtuosic when the situation demanded yet he never ventured into bare display and technique was always in the service of the music. Perhaps that’s the mark of a true virtuoso.

After the lyrical first half he abruptly changed gears to Bartók’s “Out of Doors.” Here the Hungarian master uses (abuses?) the piano as the percussion instrument that it is, embracing the action of a hammer striking a string. The middle “night music” movement conjured up images of a nocturnal walk in the woods (something we’ll explore on the Festival later this summer in an entire concert in Brown Chapel dedicated to night music from composers as diverse as Bach, Mozart, Bartók, Dutilleux, and Arvo Pärt). The concert ended with Liszt’s “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves” continuing the theme of water which loosely guided the evening’s program.

At one point, Michael pointed out that many of the composers were A-list pianists: Chopin, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bartók. Michael himself is following in the great tradition of composer-performer dating back to Bach and Vivaldi up to Paganini, the first great modern virtuoso (and the model for Liszt) who presented himself not just as a musician but an entire package, a personality.

Which brings us back to this concept of character. I like Michael and I admire his playing but more than anything I trust him as an artist. That’s not something you can fake.

The recital followed a morning master class with the students of local piano guru, Penny Lazarus. For a real Newburyport moment, the concert began a few minutes late due to attendees being delayed by a rafter of turkeys blocking High Road in Newbury.

A huge thanks to our hosts, Steve Faria and Deirdre Girard,  for the use of their home with its beautiful Steinway piano and to M. Steinert & Sons Steinway piano dealership. (

David Yang, Artistic Director

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