« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Review: Krystian Zimerman's controversial appearance at Disney Hall

April 27, 2009 |  3:32 pm

In 1978, an unknown, soft-spoken, 21-year-old Polish pianist appeared as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its newly appointed music director, Carlo Maria Giulini,  in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  The performances of Chopin’s two piano concertos were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon.  Krystian Zimerman’s eloquence went far beyond his years, and a major career was launched.

Zimerman In the '80s, Zimerman became Leonard Bernstein’s favorite pianist, the conductor’s choice to record the Beethoven and Brahms piano concertos.  In 1992, the summer before Esa-Pekka Salonen became music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, he selected Zimerman to perform with the orchestra at the Salzburg Festival.

And now, Sunday, making his Disney Hall debut in a recital sponsored by the Philharmonic, Zimerman, who has become arguably the greatest pianist of his generation, made the surprise and shocking announcement from the stage that in protest to America's military policies overseas and particularly in Poland, he would no longer perform in the United States. 

“Get your hands off my country,” he said, soft-spoken but seething.  He accused the U.S. military of wanting “to control the whole world,” and made a reference to the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Approximately three dozen 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.  He responded by saying that America has far finer things to export than the military, and he thanked those who support democracy.

Zimerman (who doesn't allow photos taken of his performances) had been in a seemingly curious mood all evening.  Normally, the most exacting of pianists, he dispatched with strange impatience Bach’s Partita No. 2 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, in the first half the program.  He quickly walked to the piano and instead of allowing the audience to quiet and the mood to be just right, he launched into each piece, not even waiting for latecomers to be seated before beginning Beethoven’s most visionary sonata.

A program change from Brahms’ late piano pieces, Opus 119, to the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Grazyna Bacewicz, announced over the loudspeakers after intermission, was the evening’s next surprise.  It was premiered in 1953 and is a strikingly modernist, moody and nationalist sonata for Soviet Poland.  Again Zimerman went straight to the piano and immediately attacked the percussive first movement.  The performance was riveting.

Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme," Zimerman more typically sat meditatively on his bench for a moment.  Twice he leaned toward the keys and almost began to play, but then turned to the audience saying he hadn’t planned to speak but decided he could not keep silent.

Zimerman is a magnificent obsessive.  He travels with his own Steinway, is his own piano technician, and even his own truck driver.  He typically spends half a year devising a concert program and will do anything to achieve the sound he desires.  Three years ago at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, he substituted Gershwin for Chopin because the Transportation Security Administration had held up his piano at the airport and he didn’t have time to practice to adjust it properly.  An earlier piano was destroyed by Homeland Security at JFK airport because officials were suspicious that its glue could be an explosive in disguise.

All along, Szymanowski’s Variations had seemed an unusually lightweight end  to a program that contained far-reaching Bach, Beethoven and (originally) Brahms.  An early work by the only internationally famous Polish composer of the early 20th century, the pleasingly Chopinesque Variations were written in 1904 when the composer was 22 and demonstrate none of the erotic mysticism of his mid-career compositions or the folk-inspired nationalism that made him known as the Polish Bartók.

Yet to hear Zimerman play anything in Disney was amazing.  His Bach was richly nuanced and beautiful although pushed in the final Capriccio.  The trills in his Beethoven had a bell-like shimmer that sounded like a newly discovered acoustic phenomenon.

But in the Szymanowski, Zimerman’s meticulous tone, so luminous in the Introduction and theme, ultimately took second place to idealistic patriotic zeal.  It’s a good thing that he can look after his own pianos, because this one will probably want some doctoring after the treatment he gave it.  There was no encore.  Pianist, audience and piano were all spent.  The cheers were deafening.

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.  And I can’t imagine a more compelling case to be made for Polish solidarity than his incomparable performance of these variations.  

-- Mark Swed 

Earlier: Krystian Zimerman's shocking Disney Hall debut

Photo: Krystian Zimerman in 2005. Credit: Kasslara.


Comments () | Archives (48)

Please don't come back to the USA. Also, please don't market yourself here.

Thank you, Maestro!
Thank you for your courage!
Thank you for taking the stand!
Thank you for your humanity!

I agree with Mark Swed's review of last night's recital by Krystian Zimerman (it was fabulous), applaud Mr. Zimerman's willingness to state his opinions, and hope that he will return to LA and to other cities in the US to perform and help us recover our democracy. Not engaging us and not performing will not make the situation better, both in the US and in Poland.

Bartok did this in the 40s! He took a stand against the Nazis. At great expense to his career. Bravo!

Like most all others who say such things, he will openly criticize anything American-except his paycheck. Just another windowpane. Transparent, brittle under pressure, and cheap to replace. Please keep yourself and your merchandise out of our horrible country, Mr. Zimerman.

Mr. Zimmerman is known for his perfection. It is not his technique which contributes to our enlightenment as voyeurs of his art; it is, that his technique does not interfere with what comes from his heart.

Last night was an exceptional example of the collateral damage of our influence. We may not agree with his actions; but, as Americans we must respect his right to voice his opinion. What would be the appropriate forum?

We went there to experience what comes from within a great artist, and that is exactly what We were delivered.

Mr. Zimerman,
The concert hall is unquestionably a temple of a Muse and indisputably not a podium for the expression of one’s political wrath. Your political statement delivered in the midst of your Sunday recital at the Disney Concert Hall has a value reciprocal to that of your intentions. You have offended admirers of your art, lovers of music, and Euterpe herself. Those who went to your recital did not know they would be witnessing an anti-American spectacle because they opted for an evening with Euterpe’s protégé and his heavenly piano playing rather than for a low level political rally. Your “thank you” words to those who support democracy were utterly misdirected – the audience was there for an entirely different reason; according to my newest information, there’s an infinitude more of democracy supporters outside the walls of that music hall than there were in. If you want to reach them, please announce that you would be coming with a speech on America’s wrongdoing and step up rather to the agora. Then, charge tens and hundreds of dollars for the privilege of listening to your oratory skills, and just before the climax of your verbal delivery, play quietly and out of tune some mediocre pastiche of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. Please do – the throng will be delighted! Now, you proclaimed this would be your last appearance in the United States, but I guess you have said that before, haven’t you? Aside from that, whom do you want to punish? Is it those thousands who never engage in politics but spend their last savings to listen to the great Zimerman play? That reminds me of one other instance of a refusal to play because of the political stand. Ignacy Paderewski vowed never to play at the Royal Prussian Court and he kept his word, but he happily performed for the people of Prussia. Well, that was though at the time when artists nobly refrained from pursuing their agendas at the events that had nothing to do with their art. I guess the clue is clear. And one more clue: Canossa is not that far from where you live, so just take the walk…

I did not attend Mr Zimerman's performance this years, as I did in the past. He is a great pianist, no doubt about that. But his political judgment is poor at best .His opinion is shaped by anti-american western European media and is not share by most of the Poles.In fact, in Poland there is great appreciation for the America and support for stronger alliance, also military, between the two countries.
Mr Zimerman has right to express his opinion, but he is not the Paderewski or the elected representative of Polish people and in no way he should transformed his recital into political demonstration.

No great loss.






Music and politics, should not be played together.
Please stay away from USA soil, for good. Mr.Z.

Las night, he only talked to the audience around two minutes or less, not a political demonstration, not a formal speech. From my opinion, it was merely an artist commuting with audience.

None of us get further comment from Mr. Zimerman, and no offend to Mr. Swed, many assume that his statement may result from what happened to his piano, but who knows? Making judgment on someone merely based on a very brief comment he made and a few stories about him is not fair and is hideous.

Great art and great artists do not fear discussion on any topic. Many artists throughout the ages have put their careers and lives at risk for what they believe in. Bravo Mr. Zimerman for provoking us into discusion with your music and your words.

Mr Zimerman: you should play only, not speak. If you want to promote Poland play Chopin a.o. and shut up. Transfer your paycheck to the 'poor' in Poland. And stay out the Western Democracies for ever. You're one the anti-zionists and anti-semitic Poles who are still around. Nothing have changed since 1940! You are not welcome in Amsterdam either.

Mr Jack Horneman;

It is usuful to be aware that sick, blind, deaf, dumb specimens like yourself are still around, and in plenty - for to be on guard to protect oneself from your harmfull influence.


I don't think Mr. Zimerman is right in every respect! But on the other hand
I would like to remind some of the readers Poland has been freed from Soviet iron
fist due to Solidarity movement, Pope John II policy and the wisdom of Polish
Government policy in late 80-ties. US policy however important, was not a key
factor in arranging the change of the political system in Poland.


I was there that night and I could not hear everything he said. All I heard was something about Guantonomo and military. So I thought "fine", there are plenty of people here who shared his thoughts on those. But when I read what he actually said in the news the next day, I was deeply, deeply disappointed with him. If it wasn't for the USA, Poland would still be a territory of the USSR. I still admire him as a musician, but there will always be that permanent tarnish.

Comments about the paycheck are a total mishit. Mr Zimmerman has a longstanding tradition on spending on charity more than he earns so if it was up to him, and not the american impresarios, you could roll your checks and stick them deep in your a**

Whether you like it or not, he has the right to present his opinion like anyone else, he is not just a concert-playing machine.

There are known issues with the liberal mind, with its misfiring neurons and far-too-gapped synapses, that make it predictable that one would unwisely wish to intertwine politics with music. The stage should not be made into a "bully pulpit" in a similar fashion as the current dictatorship-on-the-rise has fashioned the government-media-complex.

It is curious, however, that Mr. Zimmerman focuses on Poland, which had a far more serious axe to grind, historically, with both Germany and the former USSR.

Ahhh ... now I have it figured out. He was confused, and thought he was playing in the future United Soviet States of Amerika.

1 2 3 | »


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.