What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

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We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.

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Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

10 thoughts on “What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

  1. If Maestro Goodyear had chosen to interpret Domenico Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas, all 555 of them…THAT would have been a real treat to sit through…

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    • You gave me a good laugh. Much appreciated! Then again, he is still young. You might want to send him an email and make the suggestion!

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  2. Imagine our tragedy when such show-offs are business and political leaders! They take us to the brink with them.

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  3. I love your sense of humor. My favorite line in this piece is: “I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.” You’re a riot!

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