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Krystian Zimerman's shocking Disney Hall debut

April 27, 2009 | 12:24 am

Getprev Poland's Krystian Zimerman, widely regarded as one of the finest pianists in the world, created a furor Sunday night in his debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall when he announced this would be his last performance in America because of the nation's military policies overseas.

Before playing the final work on his recital, Karol Szymanowski’s "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme," 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.

For the first half of the recital, Zimerman had played a Bach Partita and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Opus 111, with firm determination.  After intermission he made a last minute substitution, exchanging late Brahms works for a 1953 sonata by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz.  The Szymanowski variations, which closed the program, was played with an astonishing ferocity that brought nothing but tumultuous cheers.  There was no encore.

The pianist was not available after the concert for further comment.

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years.  He travels with his own Steinway piano, which he has altered himself.  But shortly after 9/11, the instrument was confiscated at JFK Airport when he landed in New York to give a recital at Carnegie Hall.  Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument.  Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands.  He also drives the truck himself when he carries his instrument from city to city over land, as he did after playing a recital in Berkeley on Friday.

MONDAY UPDATE: Review: Krystian Zimerman's controversial appearance at Disney Hall 

TUESDAY UPDATE: What led to Krystian Zimerman's surprising comments, walkouts

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Krystian Zimerman in 2005. Credit: Kasslara.

Comments () | Archives (584)

I was at Krystian Zimerman's concert last night and, like everybody, was surprised by his announcement, which was not easy to hear, let alone digest. However, I was more shocked by the response on the part of some members of the audience. I think that politics -- for the audience -- should be parked outside the concert hall. If the performer wishes to make a statement involving politics from the stage, that is the performer's business. It is not my business to get into a slanging match with him. One could see that Mr. Zimerman was deeply affected by what he was saying, and that, for me, was enough. He must have thought long about the decision. If I had suffered the destruction of one Steinway piano at the hands of an incompetent bureaucracy and the quarantining of another, I should be ambivalent -- to say the least -- about returning. As for Guantánamo, the process of coming to terms with it is not going to be easy. My own belief is that it will go down in our history as a blot like the Japanese internment, but it will not be easy to admit it as such. U.S. nationalism is a very strong force. As for Mr. Zimerman, anyone who could play the Szimanowski with such feeling is forgiven any political commentary that went along with it. As Auden said about W. B. Yeats (I am quoting from memory), "God who pardoned Paul Claudel, pardoned him for writing well." Change "Claudel" to Zimerman and "writing" to playing, and you have my sentiments.

to all ignorants talking about rescuing Poland from Soviets! thank u for letting us rape by Red Army during and after the IIWW. thanks to Roosvelt , Poland had been under russian occupation for nearly 50 years!! so stop winging about US saving the world guess which country has been in war constantly for past few decades?

he doesn't hate USA, he loves USA but he hates what US Military does... Going to some countries and thinking that they own the world... They should keep their soldiers in USA and keep it safe...

Jose, you just proved YOUR ignorance.

to Alek, firstable USA did nothing to break the Soviet's iron fist but Polish people did that... Especially Walesa and Gwiazda. USA did nothing to help, Ronald Reagan was just talking a lot but didn't do anything to break that iron fist faster...

I heard his performance up in Berkeley, and he added a tag to the end of the partita, ending it in C major instead of C minor to go along with a political statement he made at the beginning of the concert. Was he that musically arrogant in LA as well, or did he actually perform the piece as Bach wrote it?

And some CHEERED!?

What has happened to some peoples pride in this country?

Some foolish pianist makes ridiculous comments and insults our country, and they actually cheer?

Hmm, hmmm. Yo, Jose is right on. when yo show your finger to the pianist tha you is much, much smarter! I myself don't want to tell no nobody about what we was doing to them blacks in Texas back in the days. I like it that way and no nobody should tell Americans how it really is here, because I myself I don;'t want to know. I just want to watch CSI and drive my big Ford fiso and be done. Yeeha. OK, OK, I also like country music and my big screen teevee and my house and barbecue and all-you-can-eat. Yeeha!

Now there's a REAL MAN for you! Speaks the truth, speaks his mind!

This guy claimed that America is trying to control the world. I have two questions regarding that. Is America actually trying to do that? Are most people who are here against Zimerman in support of America trying to control the world?

Let me see, I crossed the border ilegally, have great respect for this country, respect its laws, pay taxes. Yet some guy who is invited to the US to play piano gets applauses from the audience when he gives his negative political views? I'd say there's something wrong with this picture. Mr. Zimmerman, I would love to send you the book "THE GREATEST GENERATION."

I wouldn't stand for a polish military base here in LA. It's about time people stand up to imperialism.

This country is living in Disneyland! The US was Military was not Poland's savior. After WWII they ultimately ended up as part of USSR...how exactly did we save them there?

Poland's cause for independence was empowered by Lec Walesa, and Solidarity. USSR broke up not because of US Military, but from the failures of central economic planning. Ironically, if we don't stop singing, "America the Beautiful" like a bunch of hopeful romantic zombies, the Empire of the USSA is headed that direction.

How long before we are required to show "papers" when crossing state borders?

Margogrant, you are calling people ignorant......Let me turn your question on you -- where did you study history?

THINK, people! He's absolutely right. I love the united states, and one reason is my freedom to disagree with govt policies. How would we feel if other countries established military bases on OUR soil? Bring the troops home. We cant police the world, and our military can't keep OUR country safe if they aren't here. It isn't a partisan issue. It's common sense and common decency.
"...provide for the common defense..."
ya'll, it doesnt say 'foreign empire', it says DEFENSE.
Love your country? Support the constitution.

Great job Mr. Zimerman! More power to people like you. Heaven knows what kind of damage my country has done to the world.

Oboy, another actor/instrument player who thinks people actually care what they have to say. Face it, as a pianist, he's great, as an authority on anything else? Only another self possessed fool.

Some Americans can be really stupid. Look at these comment. Kristian Zimmerman doesn't need to come to US to get money. He is world famous, he can make the same or more elsewhere. And even more so, he doesn't even need to play anymore. To destroy a Steinway concert grand, that is just way too foolish. There is no culture whatsoever in America. Continue eating crappy food, listen to aweful stripper music, and think that America is the finest country in the world. This is the land of fools and fat and ignorant people.

Bravo Mr. Zimerman! As a native-born American citizen, I became so disgusted with the Bush regime and its odious doctrine and the utter indifference of the American people about doing anything to stop its unwarranted wars, torture, and other unconstitutional acts that I left the country. My hopes for some sort of healing with the Obama administration have been fading more and more each day (I find it unconscionable that he refuses to seek prosecution for these facilitators of torture). I will be turning in my US passport and taking up citizenship in my new country as soon as possible (I must wait until 2012).

why does it matter so much that he spoke what he wanted to? why is it always that 'he's taking our money?' america, one is volutarily going to his concert, no one forced one to go, nor it was snatched off one's hand. so much for people who thinks that personal and public opinions should be separated- it's not possible. why or how would one separate a self- esp. if one's occupation is about self-reflection/expression? i cant believe the comments about 'him taking our money.' he didnt whack you on the street. we leaped to even pay scalpers to get the concert tickets.

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