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< Spoleto 2009, and mea culpa | Main | Oberlin SO's epic journey, 2009 >

The Zimerman Controversy

Posted at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2009 by Fred Child (11 Comments)

Polish pianist Kystian Zimerman has had a troubled North American tour this spring. And now he's created the biggest classical music controversy of the season.

Due to illness (according to official statements), Zimerman cancelled major solo concerts in Boston, Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia. He played in Seattle last week, although he told the Seattle Times he was sick of toting his piano around the U.S., and because of that "this is my last concert tour of America for a very long time."

He expanded on that comment rather dramatically on Sunday night at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

Mark Swed posted a quick review of Zimerman's concert for the LA Times:

Before playing the final work on his recital...Zimerman sat silently at the piano for a moment, almost began to play, but then turned to the audience. In a quiet but angry voice that did not project well, he indicated that he could no longer play in a country whose military wants to control the whole world.

"Get your hands off of my country," he said. He also made reference to the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

About 30 or 40 people in the audience walked out, some shouting obscenities. "Yes," he answered, "some people when they hear the word military start marching."

Others remained but booed or yelled for him to shut up and play the piano. But many more cheered. Zimerman responded by saying that America has far finer things to export than the military, and he thanked those who support democracy.

In a follow-up Monday, Swed wrote:

I hope Zimerman reconsiders his U.S. embargo. He has, of course, angered some Americans. But our country is precisely the place where politics are not outlawed from the concert hall.

Swed's original review has received a torrent of comments, 280 at last count. Ranging from "he was right, the truth hurts" to "If you dont like our Country stay out and dont come back."

Btw...we'd play the audio for you on Performance Today, but Zimerman had all the microphones removed from the Disney Hall stage. There is no (legal) recording. No bootlegs have surfaced yet, either.

Classical concert halls tend to be genteel, decidedly (perhaps purposefully) non-political venues. But there is some similar recent history. In March of 2003, conductor Gerd Albrecht was conducting the Danish Radio Symphony in Copenhagen. Between pieces, he spoke to the audience, and denounced what was (at the time) the new war in Iraq, and the Danish Parliament's vote to support it. Albrecht said "Shall musicians always be silent? The answer is no. I would like to protest against the Danish government, which supports the U.S.'s bombing attacks against Iraq." According to reports, some audience members and even members of the orchestra walked out in disgust at Albrecht's remarks. And the audience who remained didn't applaud at the end of the concert. Albrecht later apologized.

Jordi Savall, founder and director of the great early music ensemble Hesperion XXI, hasn't (to my knowledge) spoken on stage, but he did cancel an American tour in 2003, after the Iraq war began. A press release from his US publicist that year said "Mr. Savall feels that under the current situation, he and others in the ensemble have a strong moral dilemma about touring the United States."

Love to hear your thoughts on this, of course...and sate yourself with these comments to Mark Swed's initial review.

Comments ( 11 )

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

Mr Zimmerman is a good man who did something.

Posted by Andrew Landwerlen | April 28, 2009 11:03 AM

Six years ago this might have been "shocking" or "controversial". Today it simply underscores what most people in the world would say - the US occupation of Iraq is deeply unpopular, the administration that invaded did so under false pretenses, and military aggression is seen for what it is. Zimerman's US embargo might be good for his own soul, but I hope he continues to perform here.

Posted by L Wallace | April 28, 2009 11:30 AM

I'm a disabled Viet Nam combat veteran, and I have to cheer this man for his courage is saying what he said ....

Posted by Paul R. Plante, P.E. | April 29, 2009 3:31 PM

Having read the short bio of Mr. Zimerman and his connection with Arthur Rubinstein, and having heard Rubinstein play an all Chopin program in NY in the 1960s, I would hope that a future PT would play a recording of Mr. Zimerman playing Chopin or perhaps a Brahms character piece. And, could it be announced in advance or posted via e-mail?

I agree with Mr. Zimerman's remarks about American militarism, which I abhor. The rest of the world seems better informed about this than many Americans. Even so, despite that the majority of Americans want to leave Iraq and Afghanistan, the military overrules the citizens. The pentagon budget remains greater than the military budgets of the rest of the world combined. I resent that my tax money is used for the nefarious purposes of killing and destroying.

Posted by Arthur House | April 29, 2009 3:46 PM

Zimerman has been playing in the States for decades, and he just now develops a conscience? Gimme a break! Incidentally, I've heard Arthur Rubenstein play, and Mr. Zimerman, you're no Arthur Rubenstein. Not only did Rubenstein play his entire recital, commenting only through his magnificent pianism, but he also met audience members backstage and shook our hands. A gentleman, a diplomat, and an artist.

Posted by K. Driscoll | April 30, 2009 1:07 PM

Certainly there is no reason for musicians to remain quiet about their political persuasions.
Many have been actively involved, Paderewski, the great Polish pianist and political activist, comes to mind, but rarely if ever brought their passions to the concert stage by addressing their audience verbally. An audience that had come to hear a passionate performance, not a misguided speech, often naive, ill-informed and insulting, whether meant to be or not. Do politics have a place in music at all? Most certainly. But in the best possible way: IN the music where it is most perfectly expressed if in symbolic ways understood only by the initiated. Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony a perfect example: The Stalinist censors heard a triumphant paean to Mother Russia, others a solemn rebuke to Stalinist oppression. How very clever, and it didn't take a staged polemic to pull it off. Mr. Zimmerman, even at his age, has much to learn. My suggestion: Play the piano, and keep the political dissertations out of the way. There are many other ways to make those expressions known. Program works that are well-known to be related to a national struggle for peace and the truth, there are plenty of them written by his own countrymen. And, he might also consider how very accepting, responsive, even loving his American audiences have been. What a slap in the face. So: he made a brave statement according to some, especially to those who agreed with him--as I do, but he chose a terrible venue for it. He should apologize. Or, he should hold to his conviction never to play an American tour again.
My guess is, even if he could find a hall that would accept him, attendance would be sparse. He might consider entering through the back door to avoid the eggs and tomatoes. Some people never forget.

Posted by robert grant | April 30, 2009 11:02 PM

Wrong time, wrong place. In other words, inappropriate. Appropriate for the time and place: a piano recital. How Mr. Zimmerman could have made his point with clarity and professional aplomb: "tote" his piano to the Lincoln Memorial, set it up at Lincoln's feet, and play a program advertised to be admission free and in protest to the waging of war, no matter where. That doesn't require specifics, only the good taste and good sense of someone who doesn't throw the baby out with the bath water. How much better, more effective, more powerful, more publicly broadcast, and more respected would such a concert have been? Incredibly so. A sophisticated musician, a mature man, a person with a conscience tuned to those who have respected him for years, resorts to matters of the mind, not the hastily made pronouncements of the mouth. Want to make amends, Mr. Zimmerman? Play the Lincoln Memorial concert. The American audiences who have followed your career and supported you would be at least grateful if not entirely forgiving. One last rather shallow remark: grow up, it's about time. Act like the worldly, cosmopolitan man you are reported to be, not the annoyed petulant child as you presented yourself in your Disney Concert Hall appearance. A tantrum in front of the paying guests who didn't ask for it and didn't deserve it no matter their political agreement or disagreement with your remarks. An embarrassment to all, including yourself.

Posted by robert grant | April 30, 2009 11:34 PM

If Mr. Zimmerman were sincere, he should have done so in 2004 and not now, when we have an honorable president who is already committed to do exactly what Mr. Zimmerman wishes, pulling the troops out of Iraq.
If Mr. Zimmerman is further sincere, he should donate all his earnings from the US tour since the commencement of the war on Iraq to pacifistic causes. This is what Americans call, putting your money where your mouth is. The rest is hypocracy and publicity.

Posted by Sal | May 2, 2009 3:49 AM

The purpose of war is to protect the innocent and punish the evildoer. The Iraq was is justified to the extent these propositions are met. In the mind of many Iraqis the American military has sacrificed their lives to protect innocent Iraqis from evil and they are grateful for our intervention. Certainly in Sadaam's Iraq Mr. Zimmerman would not have been allowed to voice an opposition opinion. And although good men disagree on whether this war was justified, mutual respect of those who hold differing views is part of civilized discourse. Did Mr. Zimmerman show that respect?

Posted by William Krzymowski | May 4, 2009 11:31 AM

Courageous criticism on Mr. Zimerman's part! Do we have any right to be in Pakistan? Why are we in Afganistan? When are our soldiers coming home from Iraq? Is Obama much different from George Bush when it comes to militarism?

Posted by Edward Palumbo | May 6, 2009 7:22 PM

The country that destroyed the lovingly cared-for Steinway of this artist because some fat Shmeesha manning the TSA gauntlet felt its glue "smelled funny" ( = bomb), doesn't deserve him. It's a country of morons, of "USA!"-shoutin' Homer Simpsons. What's sad is that Zimerman was too much of a nice guy or wimp to react appropriately at the time. His choked little speech at Disney (which "did not project well" according to the reviewer) was a pathetic expression of anger by a repressed and strangled man. He should have protested American military aggression in 2003 or 4, and raised holy hell with the media and governments of both USA and Poland over the piano incident. Instead, his fans at Disney get a damp squib in their faces.

Posted by Ronald MacRonald | May 7, 2009 2:24 AM

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