Well-Tempered Bach

Andras Schiff

Last Friday night the Vancouver Recital Society presented Andras Schiff in a recital of Bach’s first Book of Preludes and Fugues at the Chan Centre at UBC. (Andras is managed today by Kirshbaum Demler Associates in New York.)

It was a transcendent experience, the assaying of what constitutes a musical Mt. Olympus, demanding a near-impossible genius of the pianist and a great deal of the listener. It’s all the more amazing to think, as some do, that Bach wrote this first of two explorations of the complete cycle of keys and every conceivable intricate variety of fugue while in prison, all for daring to request permission to leave his employer. Even more amazing to realize he did so in an empty room, with no keyboard in sight.

That Mr. Schiff received three curtain calls at the intermission, and a standing ovation at the conclusion does no justice at all in conveying how extraordinary the experience was of sitting and listening, really listening, inside Bing Thom‘s temple to acoustic antiphony as part of that wonderfully quiet, concentrated audience to one of the world’s great masters of Bach play as though improvising every note, so intimately, so beautifully reverent and reflective.

It was a triumph!

Back in 1986, when I started work at Columbia Artists Management Inc. in New York, one of my first assignments as a fledgling manager was to drive Andras Schiff from Manhattan up to a recital he was giving in Tarrytown, NY. Harris Goldsmith, a critic for the New York Observer and a friend of Andras’, came along.

I was so nervous at getting everything right for the artist that I’m embarrassed to say I have very little memory of that performance. All I remember is that after he’d signed autographs and spoken with the line waiting to talk to him after the performance, I collected the cheque from the presenter and we all piled back into the car for the ride home.

But instead of returning directly to Andras’ apartment on the Upper West Side as expected, they asked me to drop Harris off in the Bronx along the way. One of the cardinal rules drilled into me early on by Tommy Thompson, Senior VP of CAMI and head of my division, was that, when driving artists to concerts in and around Manhattan, you never got behind the wheel of the car without explicit, written, step-by-step directions to ensure you never got lost. Manhattan and its surrounding burroughs were nowhere near as tame as they appear today.

Which made me very reluctant to venture off the path I’d faithfully mapped out so carefully in advance, but I couldn’t say no to the artist and was loath to offend the critic reviewing his performance. I took the exit for the Bronx as directed, only to discover to my horror after driving down inceasingly slum-like streets that Harris was so used to taking taxis everywhere, he had absolutely no idea how to get to his own home.

Ft. Apache, The Bronx

By that time, we were starting to pass rough-looking gangs of young men gathered around open fires burning in oil drums at the intersections, and our black Lincoln Town Car began drawing more and more scrutiny, none of it friendly. The buildings around us were crumbling, and the few remaining storefronts were shuttered up behind metal gates covered with grafitti.

Finally in the distance I spotted a gas station and raced towards it hopefully, only to find it closed. But there was a light on inside, and as we pulled up, I could see a group of men in the back gathered into a tight circle.

It all looked straight out of a movie where everything starts going horribly wrong. I told Andras and Harris to lock the doors when I got out of the car, and, in the event I got into trouble, they were to drive away and call the police, not get out. The last thing I wanted was responsibility for anything bad happening to Andras Schiff on my very first outing with an artist.

I got out of the car and walked with a rapidly-increasing feeling of dread towards the door of the dilapidated gas station. You have to picture me as I was then – very white bread fresh from Canada, dressed in my corporate little suit and tie – opening the door of the garage and walking in to the group of men engaged in a hotly contested poker game.

No one even bothered to turn around to look at me, though I knew they’d all registered my intrusion. Finally, in a very quiet, respectful voice I told them how sorry I was to interrupt them, that I knew I was in the wrong place, but that I was lost and needed help and would it be possible for someone to give me directions back onto the freeway?

What followed was a very long, very quiet and tense silence …

And then they turned and started fighting with one another over the best way to go until one of them came over, put his arm around my shoulders, told the others to be quiet and pointed out the best way to get to the freeway entrance just a few blocks away. They couldn’t have been nicer.

Back I went out to my charges, drove onto the freeway and delivered Andras home leaving Mr. Goldsmith, who had not in any way endeared himself to me that evening, to catch a taxi back home.

Thomas W. Thompson with Dana Ivey

Andras was discovered by my boss, Tommy Thompson, so I had the opportunity of hearing many of his recitals and performances with orchestra over the years. Five years later he played Book I and II of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues at Lincoln Center – it was a big event, everyone involved in music came out for it.

I was so moved, even as a member of his management team, that I wrote a poem in tribute, trying to capture the extraordinary feeling of listening to him play Bach. It was the only time I did that during two decades in the business.

Hearing Andras play on Friday night reminded of that long-forgotten poem. It was wonderful seeing him again after nearly twenty years and reminiscing about Tommy, long since gone. And this is the poem:

Well-Tempered Bach

A small dry leaf, I listen.
Tempest-tos’t on roiling torrent
Racing down faster, faster
in joyous exultation
Rushing, babbling, broiling brook
of this peculiar ecstasy.

A tiny, crystal tear in brilliant sun
Swept along in slapping, splashing playful mist
I am caught
in rainbow’s prism;
Spray and spume, crashing waves
Break upon the rugged crags
of modern thought I fall

And now, a gentle easy pond
Calm respite
in clear cool water,
Profoundly deep
Miles yet to go before I sleep.

(for Andras Schiff)
Sean Bickerton
April 13, 1990