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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 am just curious. Is Mr. Zimerman a Jew?

I agree 1000% with Mr Zimerman. Know thyself is well known to be the most difficult part for anyone to recognize. Every society has its biases and citizens with all kinds of problems. Obviously, we are not the same democracy that we once were. We tolerated dissent and encourage different points of view. At least that was the perception of America by the world, but now it's true no more. Nixon was forced to resign for an obstruction of justice and Gerald Ford was, supposedly, punished by granting a pardon to Nixon. Now, we allow the invasion of sovereign states under false pretenses, torture now is accepted, war crimes are prosecuted. I think Mr Zimenrman thought he was coming to a viable democracy and what he found was a country hijacked by fear, a democracy no more.

"Thinking the glue smelled funny, the TSA decided to take no chances and destroyed the instrument. "

WIth apologies to the writers of Indiana Jones...

Zimmerman: "I hope my piano will be well taken-care of. It must be handled carefully."
TSA: "And it will be. I assure you Mr. Zimmerman. We have top men working on it right now."
Zimmerman: "Who?"
TSA: "Top... Men..."

...Cut to an old American Tourister luggage ad...

gotta love a bureaucrat...

Still, Zimmerman blew it - revenge being a dish best served cold, he should have been even more patient and waited until he could have had his little hissy fit in the Kennedy Center.

What is astonding is that more musicians, artists and writers don't speak out, just as Mr. Zimmerman has. Why he ever consented to come back to this country after his instrument was destroyed by the TSA because it smelled funny, is baffling. We have yet to face up to the damage the reputation of our country has suffered, and continues to suffer, thanks to our crude and cruel use of force in the world. Issues such as our use of torture, our unlawful invasion of Iraq, our shameful treatment or terror suspects, our imposition of military and intelligence bases and our refusal, until very recently, to assist in the repair of global ecological damage done in large part by our rampant use of fossil fuels have angered and frustrated so many of the finest minds in the world outside of the U.S. Still, we are shocked when someone just reaches the limit of their tolerance; and we revile them for their honesty.

Let him and all those of his ilk leave this Country
and NEVER EVER come back again.
They will not be missed.

rather than complaining that he was taking your money you should be eternally grateful that this great artist ever player in your god forsaken country. He can play anywhere he wants and will always have audience ready to listen, he does not need americans for that.
Funny comments that in Poland there is democracy thanks to americans. Hahahaha!!! complete ignorants you are...

Hey, what happened?

I thought the narrative was: Now that we've elected a Marxist Fibpotus, everyone loves us?

'money can't buy you love'

The America that won ww2 is not the America of today,
Its been going downhill since Nixon.

I understand how hurt and unappreciated many of you must feel,
but Germany before 1900 was a great nation - they invented the printing press - the internet for its day.

Their industry and cathedrals were the best in the world.
Then their greatness turned to conceit and they became a burden to the world.

The same thing has happened to every single world super-power in history.
Perhaps you guys will not take his remarks personally and instead see it as it was meant - constructive criticism. Do some soul-searching. Take a look at the mess you have caused in Mexico for instance - yet another tragic legacy of Nixonism.

Wow, I just cannot believe that some people can get so angry at others for speaking the truth.

I was at this concert, and it was beautiful to hear a talented human being also express his genuine feelings on something we should ALL be concerned and angered about.

Militarism is a bad thing for everybody except the people who profit from war. Go read about it and then learn to invest your anger in the things that matter.

Some people here are complaining of Zimmerman coming here and taking your money...ARE YOU DUMB? im not even going to go any further with that one.

Zimerman is one of the greatest artist of our time. He, like earlier Paderewski, Rubinstein and Horowitz, has had the courage to say about the important issues of our time. Now, he's got full booked recitals for more than 8 years ahead, so don't worry about his needs to possess much US $. Since many years, he lives in Switzerland. It's a big shame, that he has been treated with so cruelty by US authorities in 2001 and 2006. The only Russia occupation forces destroyed piano of Chopin in Warsaw in 1830. From that time, this event is seen in Poland like a symbol of the Russian opression. How could you name then what happened with pianos of Zimerman in The USA ?

To the Pianist: Let your fingers do the talking, not your mouth. Your fingers are a lot smarter. A great American once said "DON'T OPEN YOUR MOUTH, OTHERWISE YOU WILL PROVE PEOPLE RIGHT ABOUT YOUR IGNORANCE" (not exact quote, but you get the idea) Stay in Poland.

Kudos Mr Zimerman!!!

You dont mess with a musicians instrument.

It's a shame many Gun Ho Ameirkkkans seem to want self-expressionism from artists, but dont want to hear there thoughts on personal ethic views.

The amercan military bullies other countries and some of us expect no feedback on how it effects them. Americans need to realize that this country was brought up on mistakes and need to let people say what they think.
And the best rebutle from americans is "dont take our money then" or "dont live here if you dont like us".

Suppressing minds of others is not freedom it's hypocricy. Especially when we are taking the oil of other countries and the leading country in global warming effect, which so many americans are in denial of.

"Why cant we be friends"

I will make sure he keeps his promess and don't show up here in the USA anymore. It shouldn't be to difficult to alert Homeland Security about this person and his traveling habits. Hopefully, next time not only his ( By the way, American) piano gets destroyed.

Why should we worry what some fruitcake piano player has to say while we have just as many enemies of America living this country. Show the insulant jerk the way to the airport and suggest he peddle his piano somewhere else. I don't know how, but I managed to survice nicely without his propaganda or his piano!

I thought Jim McDaniel's post was perhaps the only relevant one (with an accurate account of being in attendance at that concert and illuminating the pain and frustration shown by an artist who had been told that he should not speak). I want to be sure the reactionary chest thumpers get a chance to see it and not have it lost at the bottom of the blogs.
P.S. Do any of you know the kind of work and attention that go into preparing a one-of-a-kind Steinway? And do have any idea of what the value of the piano was that was destroyed by the TSA for "smelling funny?" Here's McDaniel's post:

I was at Mr. Zimmerman's concert last night. I'm not sure Mr. Swed quite captures what happened in the audience and on stage last evening.

Mr. Zimerman looked quite pained before he spoke. He began his comments by saying that he had been forbidden to speak to the audience (I wonder by whom, LA Phil management perhaps?).He did not yell at the audience, he engaged in an impassioned, spur of the moment, speech from the piano. He did not seem angry as much disappointed and frustrated by the actions of our government. He felt the profound need to explain to the audience why he would not be performing in the US any time soon. It was not a harangue or a tirade.

He did also refer to our recent election of President Obama, he thanked the audience for supporting democracy in this country again.

I was sitting in the Terrace and could see most of the hall. I saw and heard only a handful of people reacting negatively to Zimerman's statements from the piano, not the 30 or 40 Swed reports. The protesters were drowned out by a sustained round of applause during his comments.

At the end of the concert the audience just went nuts. I have never heard such a wild response from an audience. Mr. Zimerman was visibly moved by the audience vociferous and heartfelt response and came out for his bows with his hand over his heart.

The people who are calling Zimerman a jerk are hypocrites. They would be the very people who would applaud an American artist going to China or Venezuela and making a political statement about freeing Tibet or the lack of human rights under Chavez.These people do not fool me. They are not against performers being political, it's just that their ox was being gored. They would have been perfectly happy with some verbal American flag waving from the stage.

Personally I could have done without the speech. But if Zimerman's speech was the price I had to pay for the most impassioned piano playing I have ever heard... so be it.

So I take it the military forced him to play at Disney Hall for free? You know, when people become intelligent adults, they often gain the ability to tell the difference between governments and citizens. What a petulant fool and drama queen.

Oh, and I don't fault Zimerman personally for Poland's involvement, however small, in the same stupid Iraq war.

I'm glad that such an idiot will not return to our great country. I'm glad I was NOT attending such a snobish venue, much to stuffy for me. I might have ended up in Jail as I would have spit on him. Forget throwing a shoe.

I wonder where Mr. Zimerman's vitriol comes from, although his behaviour re. his Steinway probably reflects a fairly high degree of both anger and paranoia. And to come to someone's house, perform, collect money, and then insult your host seems out of line. Finally to think that, as a concert pianist, his opinions on geopolitical issues actually matter to anyone, is to add hubris to that anger and paranoia.

Who cares what he thinks? Talk about ego. His job is to play. No one cares about his opinion any more than they care about the opinions of other service for fee providers like their janitor or car wash attendant.

If he doesn't llike our policies, he should move back to Eastern Europe. How quickly people forget that it is because of our military that people such as him are free from the chains of communism and are able to play his music freely. So sad what short memory people have. Not even the same generation can remember things that affected themselves.

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