Wednesday night’s concert was a quiet affair. I mean, the acoustics in Morse Recital Hall are incredible — I could hear a woman taking her heels off halfway through the performance — I could hear knuckles cracking from across the balcony — any more noise than breathing, and I would have gotten funny looks from the dozen or so people who turned out to try to fill the 680-seat venue.
But it was quiet in another, different way — that strange way peculiar to Western classical music — that almost-religious reverence which has gone so out of fashion in the popular music of today. I had the thought, sitting there, that it was very much like a funeral — after all, classical music is, for many people, dead. The concertgoers dress up in their very best. They filter into the hall, which is more or less like a church — they speak in hushed tones, sit down in their pews. They turn their gaze to the black, coffin-like piano on the stage, polished to a dull sheen.
And so it turns out that many people’s idea of a good time isn’t where I found myself Wednesday night: a two-hour piano concert given by someone trying to fulfill the requirements for the Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Yale School of Music.
Sean Kennard bowed quickly, smiled brightly, then sat down and began to play, without prelude (OK, so the first thing he played was a prelude, but he started playing the prelude without prelude). For 120 minutes, he was absorbed entirely in the piano. Not in a particularly elegant way, either — piano-playing looks a little awkward. Wrists askew, fingers splayed out. A giant, unwieldy instrument, with a comparatively little man pounding away on the keys. There’s none of the grace of the violin player, none of the mobility of a guitarist.
But Sean didn’t seem stuck. It was more like he was dreaming. There was nowhere else he wanted to go, nowhere else he wanted to be. Sean moved as if asleep, except for his fingers, which raced like lightning. His focus was on what was right in front of him, and what was right in front of him was the piano, its polished face reflecting his own. I sat opposite him, but he didn’t see me. The air between us might as well have been a mirror.
Sean’s in a position of luxury. Most musicians have to pander to the audience to some extent. They have to entertain — rock artist, street performer, DJ — and if they don’t engage the audience, they don’t eat. A student has the luxury of not worrying too much about money — not yet.
And so the performance didn’t seem, at first, to be for us, the audience. It was an intensely personal activity. Instead of filling the whole concert hall with energy, the room narrowed around Sean into a singular point of motion. There was him; the piano and me, off on the balcony, looking in as if through a window. He seemed alone, and in that moment I felt alone too.
So I closed my eyes.
There was nothing to see, after all. No pyrotechnic display, no interesting facial expressions, no choreographed dancing.
I closed my eyes, and suddenly I was away. Far away, on a rainy beach, with globs of liquid music pelting me like rain, waves of sound tickling my feet. The chords tugged at my heart, and next to me sprang the shadows of the people I’ve loved, flickering in the harmonic wind.
I’ve heard it said that the problem of modernity is alienation. If that’s the case, this concert was decidedly not modern.
Something amazing happens when the artist doesn’t try to sell the music. Something remarkable happens when he plays for the sake of the music and ignores the audience. Something incredible happens when the artist doesn’t try to impose himself on the music, when he lets it flow through him and out to the listener, unmediated. The stage becomes irrelevant — it’s no longer a barrier, just the place where he happens to be sitting. The music becomes what it truly is: the composer’s gift to the listener, and the artist is a mouthpiece. The audience is given the power to interpret.
This is true art: when the artist performs entirely for himself, and at the same time, entirely for others. It’s the paradox that distinguishes the commercial from the sublime.
Sean’s right eye twitched every now and then. But I never once saw it twitch out of time to the music.