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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)

Good for him for speaking up about the US war machine. I am American and left the country after 9/11. Hopefully the new administration can restore our dignity in the world.

Man has opinion. Half of the people agree, have disagree. News at 11.

But seriously, what's his beef with the shield? If anything my country of birth needs it to keep those ruskies in check.

How exactly is Zimerman "taking" people's money? People are willingly paying him money. Why shouldn't he speak out? Isn't this America? Should he never play music that was inspired by political events? Should Beethoven have not written "Wellington's Victory," or Picasso not painted "Guernica?"

For all of you who say artists shouldn't talk publicly about politics, that they should stick to acting or music or whatever, then in future please shut up about your religion unless you're a priest. No, people in prominent positions should speak out about what they believe. You are perfectly free to dispute their facts and opinions in an open debate. What exactly are you afraid of?

And for Lukacz, who apologized for his poor English but excoriated Zimerman: you should know there are people who think they have a right to mock you and discriminate against you because you don't speak and write English perfectly. Better to cut Zimerman some slack.

Most of the negative comments sound like defensive little children:

"Go then, and don't come back!"

"How dare he take our money!" ( ummm, I think people gave their money to hear him perform, which he did, magnificently)

"Oh, he's probably angry about his piano"

"If they don't like us, go!"

Try thinking a little and formulating a bit more nuanced reaction/statement.

If you cannot see how the US has over the past 10 years, has tarnished it's once good image and history of doing good, then you are blind.

For once, try listening and understanding another point of view.


I am afraid your expectations are at least unrealistic. while in Los angeles, I felt somewhat handicapped for not being able to communicate in Mexican. I apologize, I had the Spanish dialect in mind.

Mr Alek,Mr Thomko,,Mr Lemanski.
If ALL of Eastern Europe was not sold out at Yalta,we would not be having this informal History lesson.
Do not forget "artists" have these opinionseven sadly US artists.
Please do yourselves a fovor and look up the names and events,do not get hung up on the pronunciation of the names.
1.Tadeusz Kosciuszko
2.Kazimierz Pulaski
3.General Wladyslaw Anders
4.The Polish Pilots who fought for England in the Battle of Britain
6.The Nadolny Brothers of New Britain ,CT 6 of them served in WW2
7.Ryszard Kuklinski
And lastly as the USA's steadfast ally,why is it so hard for Polish people to obtain a visa to enter the US.
PS , I do not agree with the pianist

Well there would have been democracy in Poland for a long time if Roosevelt hadn't sold Poland to Stalin at the Yalta conference. Time to learn some history

Reading the comments, it seems some clarification is necessary.

Starting with the past administration and continuing with the present administration, the US will soon be placing missiles in Poland. Needless to say, Russia is tremendously upset with this, much as the US was when Russia placed missiles in Cuba.

Poland has always been a geographical crossroads and has suffered enormously in the past as a result. Should the global political situation deteriorate, Poland would become -- once again -- a likely initial target.

If you were Polish, and had the opportunity to simultaneously address 2000 people, would you? And if you didn't, could you live with yourself?


The shields are not yet approved, agreed, etc. by any party, thus your statement is worthless and inaccurate. Concerning the public address, if in fact one would decide to convey to two thousand people in Los Angeles, Spanish would prove to be a better choice.

Good for Mr. Zimmerman. Wish more people had the courage to do that. Since 1980, though, Americans have loved their militarism too much to care what others think, even when they slaughter well over a million people like they have in Iraq (and in Vietnam). It must be very strange to come here after being out in the real world. Outside of the US, most of the world gets real news about what the US military really does in the world. Outside the US, people hope that it's just the US government and military that are bad; they hope that the American people aren't like that, that the American people oppose their government and military. It must have been surreal for Zimmerman to come here and find out the truth: that the US public either doesn't care what their military does or supports it. I hope someday the world forces Americans to care about the damage they do and/or forces them to change.

It's also funny, and unfortunately typical, that Americans think the whole world relies on the US military for their very existence. And Americans always try to force every discussion about their military into a discussion about World War II, which they believe they were solely responsible for winning! And so many of them believe their sorry president Reagan was responsible for "defeating" the Soviet Union, which isn't true, and they always confuse communism with Nazism, and they can't understand why anyone in the world would want to have the kind of full social services provided in socialist countries, which they confuse with fascist countries. Conversations always go that direction with Americans, whose ignorance is never-ending.

Krystian Zimerman is a great artist, a passionate person and he has the right to speak. There are probably more reasons than the one he gave at the concert. He apparently was having some health problems lately. Add to that the tremendous appaling hassle since 9/11 to travel with his instrument. Would he be young in search of fame, he would never say that. It is a bit simple but we can understand how tiring it is to travel today. I am surprised he even came back to play in the US after the TSA had his Steinway DESTROYED. I hope they paid him back for that.
The political reason is a valid one, some may understand it, some may not. At least it's valid enough to Zimerman. US citizens are mostly very patriotic, they should understand that folks from other lands have the right to be patriotic too.
I just think he has been unhappy for a while and may have wanted to quit with all this travel hassle a long time ago but still needed a job.

Deang is correct. What some (unfortunately not many enough) have expected in the US from Obama would be the FCC deregulation and prompt removal of what Americans have had for decades: the Soviet-style censorship in the media.

The content that the Americans are enjoying in parallel to easy to swallow fast food is sanitized TV. It is very dangerous not to expose the maturing next generation to the realities of war, uncensored cinema and pictorials. When faced with the message addressing "graphic imagery" Americans run for the barn-size refrigerator.

Posts like this are incredibly useful in that they quickly reveal the bullheaded stupidity anchored into the American mentality. Keep them coming morons. Stuff like that doesn't ever require a response; all that need be said is contained in the original jingoistic statement.

Shut up and play the piano! No one cares what you think about politics!

I don't completely understand all the complaints about him "taking our money," despite being critical of our country. Why does this matter? He can't force anyone to give him money, and in actuality he did not take *America's* money--not the money of the American government, at any rate--he took the money of the individuals who chose to hear him play. People trade with people they dislike all the time. Besides this, he has a right to say what he believes, whether or not we agree with it. Everyone commenting here also has that right, and I do not object to people criticizing Zimerman's words... but I do hope that we can express our opinions without resorting to non-sequiturs disguised as faux-ironies.

It's funny when people say we would speak German or Russian without U.S. help. You can check in your history books that there was no Poland on maps for 123 years. We were under occupation of 3 other nations.
And there was no US Army to help us also and WE STILL SPEAK POLISH
Your participation in WW2 is not the only reason we are free.
Most of all it is because of OUR people who cannot stand any occupation.
So keep it in mind.
Even if USA didn't help European nations defeat Germany WE WOULD STILL SPEAK POLISH.

All my Zimmerman Cd's are now coasters!!!

Mr. Zimmerman has only said what all people of Poland think.

you americans don't have any culture,so it is nice when someone like Krystian Zimerman,tell the true story to you.

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