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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.

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