Slip 2

6 September 2012 in Heather

My memories of performing are always from the piano bench. The gaze is outward, framed by the length and curve of the piano case in front of me. I can’t leave myself. I see my fingers reflected in the glossy black fallboard. They move over the keys in a slow-shutter blur that obscures the name of the piano manufacturer embossed in gold behind them. I can make out certain letters, but the names merge in the way the names of past lovers do: Steinway, Baldwin, Yamaha.

In the composers’ names, though, I find focus. Bartok is the day I pinched my brother in church. Bach is winning the playoff for first prize on account of “just having style.” Schubert is my college entrance audition. And Beethoven— a pianist’s past always includes Beethoven.

I spend the first ten weeks as an undergraduate at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music learning the second Beethoven piano concerto. I am slated to play in the concerto competition the Sunday after Thanksgiving. As the only pianist playing Beethoven—early, “unimportant” Beethoven—I enjoy a low profile around school. The halls resound with Rachmaninoff Firsts and Thirds, the Schumann, and the Brahms d minor. I am a mouse among lions.

There is a passage in the Adagio that consists of simple, broken-chord figurations shared between left and right hands: the piano soloist accompanies the melody played by oboes and French horns. This trade-off between soloist and orchestra illustrates the good manners of the classical style: the piano concedes to the orchestra and the orchestra steps in with confidence. We are dance partners straight out of a Jane Austen novel, defining the invisible with our polished shoes and pretty skirts. The characters come to life onstage, in such contrast—my mind observes—to the silent black void of the concert hall to my right.

In an instant, that darkness reaches up and right around me, blotting Beethoven from my mind. I am adrift, unable to remember the progression of harmonies across the measure. My fingers make motions as if playing, but I hear the wrong notes. One beat passes by, then two, then three. Then my mind surfaces and I return to the performance like a soloist should, playing beautifully, unnerved.

When it is over, I am dazed but pleased. My accompanist tells me I was great. At the end of the day, all the pianists return to the lobby, hungry to hear the names of the four finalists. One of the judges hovers near my elbow.Your name would be on that list,” he says. I hardly expect a debrief, yet he gestures for me to sit. He is direct. My Beethoven is “lovely” and “exquisite,” and the panel appreciated how I’d chosen a piece that suited me so well. “No costume for you!” He gestures and I flinch. “Your name would be on that list,” he repeats. “But the memory slip in the Adagio. It’s unacceptable.” “I know,” I say. “Well, next time.”