“Peter Serkin, RIP” (written 2/2/20)

Yesterday was just a crappy day. (Maybe it is the fact that we are in Carla’s death anniversary month…I thought it was just a bad day. The second year will do that, I’m told.). And it ended with the news that Peter Serkin has died. I talk about Alfred Brendel so much you’d think I have no other “favorite pianists.” But I do, and Peter Serkin is one of them. Not so much for how he plays, but rather for what he plays. Peter Serkin was the son of the great Rudlolph Serkin, who, like Brendel, was one of the supreme masters of non-romantic classical music up to about the mid 20th century. Peter Serkin wisely chose a very different path than his father, and his interests pretty much began with the mid 20th century and went up to today, as in this very minute! He is recognized as the most important interpreter of any serious new music for piano. One critic put it this way: “(Serkin’s albums) are not Three Tenors sorts of “classical” CDs, at least in terms of sales.” To say the least…

Serkin recorded some superb albums and almost single-handedly helped sustain the piano as a relevant classical music instrument well into the 21st century. But the album I’d like to start with of his is a quiet and somewhat quirky album entitled “The Ocean That Has No West and No East.”

The format of the album, if you can discern one at all, is that Serkin plays a work by a composer, followed by a work of a different composer that was inspired by the death of the composer you had just heard in the previous piece. One composer that seems to be the center of gravity is Toru Takemitsu, a great Japanese composer who died in 1996. First Serkin plays Cantéyodjâya (1948) by Messiaen, which shows off the percussive possibilities of the piano. Takemitsu happened to love Olivier Messiaen, and “borrowed” modes from Messiaen to use in his own works. When Messiaen died, Takemitsu composed “Rain Tree Sketch” (1982) and “Rain Tree Sketch II” (1992), which are gorgeous miniatures, almost like more contemporary, more minimalist and more eastern versions of the Beethoven Bagatelles. When Takemitsu died in 1996, Oliver Knussen paid tribute to him the following year with “Prayer Bell Sketch.” Another Takemitsu tribute is the one that gives this CD its title. Peter Lieberson’s “The Ocean that has no West and no East” (1997) which is like a haiku, with minimal fuss but very evocative and moving.

In addition to Messiaen, Takemitsu was influenced by Debussy (undoubtedly for Debussy’s interest in Asian music as well as his nuanced timbres), by traditional Japanese music, and by the breaking of tradition, both in the early 20th century (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg) and in the latter part of the century (John Cage). Takemitsu had been a member of the Jikken Kōbō,, an experimental music group that led Takemitsu to try musique concrete and electronic music. He composed serious music, but he also composed a great deal of film music. Said John Cage: “I can well imagine Toru Takemitsu travelling through Japan, not to capture different aspects of the moon, but let’s say to experience the wind whistling through different trees, and returning to the city with a gift. This gift consists of the transformation of nature into art.”

Due to advancements in higher education, advancements in travel and technology, and probably a slew of other factors, there are literally thousands of worthy composers walking among us at this very minute, and you’d be shocked as to how few of them you’ve actually heard of. This is a great development for (mostly obvious) reasons. But it also means the next Beethoven, or even the next Takemitsu, may be completely overlooked due to the sheer volume of new music there is, the proliferation of choices we all have for our very limited leisure time, and our inability to sit still long enough to listen to a work that may require repeated listening.

Peter Serkin makes me think about these things. And one thing I’ve learned is this: Every concert series, and every soloist, wants to play the “premiere” of a new work. It brings in the dineros. But what I look for is a work being played for the second time. Think of it. That concert series, or that soloist, KNOW it creates a lot less buzz to play a new work for the second time. But they are doing so anyway. Why? Could it be that that new work is worthwhile? That a critical mass of people are starting to look at that work and listen to that work for all the right reasons? That, just maybe, you and I should stop and give it a listen as well? What I’m saying is that many “premiere” performances become stillborn babies, never to be heard again. But once a work is played a second time, it becomes far more likely it will be performed a third time. And a fourth time. And a fifth…

Listening to a Peter Serkin album is (sometimes literally) witnessing the big bang, eg, experiencing the premiere of a work as it was recorded, and as a result, having the power, if you so choose to exercise it, to introduce that work to a second person. Playing that work a second time. Each of us has the power to help shape the future of music history in this manner. But it requires some brave ears…and, if it’s the piano, it probably requires some help from Peter Serkin…May his life be for a blessing.

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