Thoughts on last week’s piano recital by Valentina Lisitsa

By Barry Kempton

Those who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital at the Ordway on Tuesday of last week will have experienced a couple of unusual elements in the performance.  Between the various comments I heard first-hand on Tuesday evening, follow-up notes and emails from various audience members and indeed close to 150 online surveys filled in within 24 hours of the performance, I have learned much about what audience members thought about the musician, the music and the large-screen projection.  I have enjoyed the variety of thinking.  There are no correct answers when it comes to providing feedback, so it’s truly interesting to get so many comments.

Rather than provide a summary of the feedback of others, I thought I’d share some observations of my own.

Audience voting:  Valentina provided a list eight works or sets of pieces and invited the audience to vote on line for the four that they wanted to hear her play.  Bach’s Chaconne (arranged for piano by Busoni), the Liszt Sonata and two Beethoven Sonatas won the day – fairly convincingly, it must be said.  Music by Schubert (some of which we got to hear in her encore) and Michael Nyman were among the works which weren’t selected. 

The voting was transparent, easy to set up and over 600 people participated.  Presumably most of the participants were ticket holders, but who is to say if some of her fans from other parts of the world didn’t learn about the vote and have their say! 

I applaud Valentina’s fresh approach to involving the audience.  People clearly care about the choice of works and the fact that she gave us a voice meant that we were all invested in what she played well before 7:30pm on the night of the performance.

As Valentina herself commented on stage, the program chosen for her comprised works which faced outwards to humanity.  Larger-scale, extrovert piano music, which expressed a full range of emotion with plenty of grandiose moments.  It was all technically well-played and I particularly enjoyed her Beethoven sonatas.  But I think I would have preferred a program with more shape and variety in it, variety of sound world and variety of composition century (Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is after all more 19th century work than 18th century).  Having agreed to play the four most popular pieces per audience vote, Valentina of course gave up her control of overall balance of the program.  With the benefit of hindsight, I think there are other ways for an artist to involve the audience in the choice of music but maintain more oversight.  Audience members sent in suggestions along the lines of providing two more complete programs to choose from, or involving the audience in the choice of part (but not all) of the program.  All these might work better than the method we used.  But I give a lot of credit to Valentina for opening up the process.  I wouldn’t expect many recitalists to approach their program planning in this way.

The idea for the big screen projecting close-ups of the keyboard and the artist’s hands was The Schubert Club’s and not Valentina’s.  We proposed it to her knowing that she is an artist comfortable with media and open to new ideas and I am grateful to her openness to it. 

The screen seems to have been hugely popular (though it’s fair to acknowledge a couple of audience members who found it distracting).  We intentionally used just two fixed position cameras and stationed them upstage (behind the piano from the audience’s perspective).  We decided to switch shots rarely and to fade between the two images.  (I owe thanks to board member Peter Myers for his expert advice on how to ensure that the camera work was as unobtrusive as possible.) 

I was very happy with the results.  Everyone in the hall was able to see the keyboard, to see Valentina’s elegant hands and fingers move up and down the keyboard with grace.  

Someone asked me if we might do it for musicians of other disciplines.  My feeling is that (at least for the time being), we won’t be projecting close-ups of the singers, violinists and other recitalists.  Many will know that close-up video projections of pop and rock bands are pretty much ubiquitous.  But rock and pop concerts are different in many ways and the big screen is normally in place to compensate for the fact that some audience members are 150 yards away from the stage.

I can’t even promise we’ll do this with every pianist – it will depend on their level of comfort and, quite frankly, our ability to afford this extra production element.

But I do hope that for some future piano recitals, we will be able to project video of the keyboard since it’s so interesting for audiences to see how the music is produced. 

If you have other ideas of how to enhance the recital experience, please chime in.