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What led to Krystian Zimerman's surprising comments, walkouts

April 28, 2009 |  6:03 am

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, who is widely admired for his virtuosic performances and who famously tours with his own custom-altered Steinway, created a furor at Disney Hall on Sunday night when he stopped his recital to announce that this would be his last American appearance -- in protest of the nation's military policies overseas.

In a low voice that could not be heard throughout the auditorium, Zimerman, universally considered among the world's finest pianists, made reference to Guantanamo Bay and U.S. military policies toward Poland.

Zimerman "Get your hands off my country," he said.

Then he turned to the piano and played Szymanowski's "Variations on a Polish Folk Theme" with such passion and intensity that the stunned audience gave him multiple ovations.

Earlier, about 30 or 40 people in the audience had walked out after Zimerman's declaration, some shouting obscenities.

"Yes," the pianist, known in Poland as "King Krystian the Glorious," answered, "some people, when they hear the word military, start marching."

Zimerman then said that America has far finer exports than its military -- and he thanked those who supported democracy. He left the stage without further comment and was unavailable Monday.

His manager, Mary Pat Buerkle, told the Associated Press on Monday that Zimerman has talked for the last couple of years about not coming back to the United States "for a while. . . . I don't think it's appropriate to say it's all political."

Zimerman has had problems in the United States in recent years, but many in the classical music world thought they were logistical.

Just a week ago, before an appearance in Seattle, Zimerman expressed frustration about the hassle and expense of touring the U.S. with his piano.

Shortly after Sept. 11, his 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 Transportation Security Administration decided to take no chances and destroyed the piano. Since then he has shipped his pianos in parts, which he reassembles by hand after he lands. To get from city to city within the U.S., he hires a driver to take the shell of the piano, and he drives another car that holds the precious custom-designed keys and hammers.

Lately, he'd seemed pleased with the direction the United States has taken. During a performance Friday at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, he delighted his Bay Area audience by making sly reference to his approval of Barack Obama in the White House.

But by the time he drove his piano to Los Angeles, Zimerman's mood appeared to have darkened. His remarks, which some in the audience characterized as angry, were the talk of Los Angeles' classical music world and its small Polish community Monday.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that while some patrons were taken aback by Zimerman's comments,she did not believe it would affect attendance or fundraising.

"It was very clear he was speaking for himself," she said. "We obviously can't censor. We believe in freedom of expression. We don't use a hook to drag people off the stage."

In a spirited range of comments on Culture Monster, many praised Zimerman and others said the stage was no place for divisive political speech. "Go Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you," said one post, referring to the country music group that in 2003 created a ruckus when a member said they were ashamed President Bush was from Texas.

Others noted that though classical music culture in the United States is among the least overtly political of enclaves, Poland has a long tradition of mixing the political and the musical. Composer and pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski was Poland's third prime minister and is revered in Poland the way the Founding Fathers are here.

"There is a tradition of Polish pianists being in the middle of political events," said Marek Zebrowski, director of the Polish Music Center at USC.

Though Poland gets comparatively little attention in the U.S., American policy recently has been a hot-button issue in Poland. Poles were upset about allegations that the CIA held suspected Al Qaeda militants in secret prisons in Poland. A Polish newspaper mockingly referred to the country as "the 51st state." Also controversial was a Bush administration proposal to put missile defense facilities there.

Sumi Hahn, a Seattle journalist who interviewed Zimerman earlier this month, said she was not surprised to hear of his outburst. She said he told her that he had "very mixed feelings now about America."

In the past five years," she quoted him as saying, "something happened here that changed the world: a war based on lies. . . . So much damage was done worldwide ... and Americans are so unaware."

On the other hand, Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances in Berkeley, said he was surprised to hear of Zimerman's L.A. comments -- especially because of the lightness that characterized his performance in Berkeley.

Just before playing a Bach partita, Zimerman told his audience it was important to consider the political purpose of a piece of music. Bach, he told his audience, "had made a decision to put his piece in a minor key rather than a major one." Perhaps, he said, according to audience members who were there, he did that because there was a leader Bach didn't like.

Zimerman made an approving reference to Obama and then played the piece, but ended it in a joyful C major instead of amelancholy C minor.

"The audience loved it," said Christina Kellogg, director of public relations at Cal Performances. "His playing was brilliant and they broke into huge applause, and he was clearly pleased that the audience was completely with him."

Cole said he had breakfast with the pianist last week at a music-themed cafe across the street from the campus. Zimerman spoke mainly of how exhausting it was to travel with a Steinway.

"I'm sorry he's not coming back," Cole said. "He reminds me of Don Quixote. He's on a quest for perfection."

Cole added that, from a public relations perspective, it's too bad Zimerman hadn't offered his comments about Bach to Los Angeles and saved his fiery political rhetoric for Berkeley.

"I think he maybe picked the wrong place," he said. "It would have been less of an uproar here."

--Jessica Garrison and Diane Haithman with Mark Swed contributing.

Earlier by Mark Swed: Review: Krystian Zimerman's controversial appearance at Disney Hall

Photo: Krystian Zimerman in 2005. Credit: Kasslara.

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