A PIANIST'S LANDSCAPE
By Carol Montparker
Amadeus. 297 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Ted Libbey
Not every new book about music has to shake the earth in order to be worth reading. Some, like this one, merely plant a few flowers in it, improving our view of a field that was already well worth looking at. As it turns out, A Pianist's Landscape celebrates real flowers as well as the figurative ones that bloom in a musician's life, for its author, Carol Montparker, is a big-time gardener and bird watcher as well as a practicing (double meaning again!) musician. Nor is that all she does. Montparker is also senior editor of Clavier magazine, a publication devoted to the keyboard, for which, since the early 1990s, she has penned a monthly column entitled "Carillon." In addition, she has written for the Piano Quarterly and Keynote magazine, whose disappearance from the New York music scene a decade ago is still lamented.
In A Pianist's Landscape she has woven a garland out of meditations on various aspects of a musician's life, sharing her experiences as well as her inner thoughts on what goes into the making of music and the making of musicians. She has used cuttings from her own work very effectively, drawing on some of her "Carillon" essays and on articles for Clavier and other publications that go back almost 20 years. As a result, her "landscape" is as much a memoir as it is a portrait of the artist and her surroundings.
The book's 33 brief chapters are laid out in four main sections: "At Home," "On Stage," "In the Studio," and "In the Field." Montparker reminds the reader right at the start that these are not discrete realms but settings that overlap with one another, and that what is experienced in one of them may often fertilize what is rooted in another.
Musicians very often have a difficult time putting into words what it is they do. Not Montparker. One of the chief delights of this book is that it is so engagingly well written; it opens things up to the lay reader without the slightest hint of awkwardness or pretension. Montparker talks about what musicians think, how they interact, their foibles, joys and fears, with the ease of someone talking about what's growing in her garden. The writing is direct, the expression of thoughts and feelings remarkably concrete.
And yet there is great finesse as well. As an avid watercolorist, Montparker naturally knows that much can be suggested by a small gesture. She paints a picture of her own domestic life, surrounded by objets d'art and serenaded by avian songsters, that immediately invites the reader to share in her pleasure. And it is fascinating to see what she has to say about her children (both of whom turned out to be musical) in the chapter entitled "Music-Making en Famille," and to ponder what she describes as "genetic musical connections."
This is Montparker's second book. Her first, Anatomy of a New York Debut Recital, is well regarded in musical circles both for its candid look at the way the business works and for the human face it puts on what has become one of the rituals of our concert life, the Carnegie Hall debut. Candor and warmth remain a part of her charm in A Pianist's Landscape, even when the erudition seems to be laid on a bit heavily. In the early going, the author averages better than one quotation or scholarly citation per page, as though she's been saving them up and simply must find a way to use them. As time goes by, the insights she communicates are more often her own, and every bit as interesting.
There are many enjoyable anecdotes, related in a way which suggests that Montparker is as personable as she is perceptive. One of my favorites was her account of cellist Janos Starker, in a variation on the miracle of the loaves and fishes, cutting a fine Hungarian salami into paper-thin slices at a post-concert party while still in his tails (Montparker describes him as rolling up "his tux sleeves," but I very much doubt he was wearing a tuxedo that night). Another story has to do with a pair of letters she received from Donal Henahan, then the senior music critic of the New York Times, in response to a request for an interview. Not only are the letters themselves quite amusing, so is the context: I worked at the Times when Henahan was senior critic, and I remember how much he hated to be bothered. That he took the time to write a lengthy reply to Montparker's original request, and then a short follow-up, and to fill both with gentle humor, testifies to the civility of the correspondent as well as that of the critic.
Montparker has illustrated A Pianist's Landscape with some of her own watercolors, which appear on the cover and on several inside pages. They add yet another personal touch to a book that should bring a smile of recognition to anyone who has studied piano, as well as anyone who, like Montparker, has taught others to play it.
Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection," and appears as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's "Performance Today."