Pierre-Laurent Aimard did it quietly. Evgeny Kissin did it in a casual remark to a presenter. Piotr Anderszewski, evidently, has done it in an interview with the website Humans of New York – or at least, in a statement on their Facebook page (though not on their main website).
What’s “it?” Time off. Stepping off the treadmill. All of these major pianists have taken or are taking a sabbatical from performing.
Hitting the big time as a soloist is supposed to be the pinnacle of a musician’s achievement. You earn top dollar; you play in the great halls of the world; you live on a daily basis with some of the greatest achievements of Western culture. But in the jet age, it’s often a grind – for pianists, for violinists, for singers. You get locked into complicated webs of commitments and repeating cycles of the same music, while subjugated to constant pressure to be excellent at every appearance – or risk hearing about it, from the press, afterwards.
A detail from an interview I did with the pianist Yefim Bronfman in 2007 has stuck in my mind. In order to learn a new piece that the composer was late delivering, he matter-of-factly said, he had to stay in the hall after his recitals and practice until two or three in the morning. (The composer is virtually always late delivering a new piece.)
I also refer often to something a former member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program said to me about a piece of advice from Renee Fleming. It wasn’t about performing. It was about budgeting your time so you were able to learn your music.
Of course, musicians have always had to focus on the practicalities. Yet as I attend more and more performances that seem accurate but joyless, I fear that the business of classical music has taken some of the fun right out of the game.
“I don’t want to become a two-hundred-concert-per-year performing machine,” Anderszewski said to Humans of New York. “It requires too much efficiency. And the efficiency burns you out. … If you’re piloting a Boeing 777 with four hundred people on board, you aren’t going to try new maneuvers. You aren’t going to have fun or experiment. You don’t have time to stay in your dreams or ideas… I won’t say that taking time off makes you a ‘better’ musician, because I don’t like the word ‘better.’ It sounds competitive. But it does make you less of an automaton and more human.”
Pierre-Laurent Aimard spoke of his sabbatical in similar terms. “I have the feeling [I was] starting a new life,” he said to me in 2014, shortly after his return to the stage. “Sincerely, I was a little afraid. There were moments when I thought if I could, I would remain like that for the rest of my life.”
Of course, most people would love to take a year off from the grind of their daily jobs and pursue outside passions. We just don’t expect to hear this from artists. Artists, after all, are supposed to be having fun at what they do, communicating great truths, deriving new strength from their art even as they pour themselves out. The paradigm of the jet-set artist is Placido Domingo, seemingly insatiable in his thirst for performance, flying in and out for single evenings, finding different ways to stay in front of the audience, trumpeting his mantra, “If I rest, I rust.”
But music is a business – for all our exalted claims of the non-commercial aspects of the art form we love. And like many communications-based industries, it’s putting more and more demands on fewer and fewer “content providers.” Those of us who go to lots of concerts every year have seen the concert fatigue at the top levels of the circuit: the same great artists, presented every season, to a slightly dwindling crowd.
This is an existential problem for a field whose appeal lies partly in its ability to transcend the mundane, to take us – performer and listener alike – out of ourselves. It can be hard to muster transcendence on command. And it would be helpful to find a viable modification to the concert circuit that allows performers the breaks they need to avoid feeling like automatons while doing the very thing that they love most.