Women Pianists And Grand Success A Rarely Sounded Chord

December 08, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Something remarkable happens here in the next eight days: Three women will sit down at pianos and give major concerts, and the realization they bring is how rare a thing that is.

Ruth Laredo's recital tonight in the Shriver Hall Concert Series, Marian Hahn's concerto appearance Saturday evening with the Peabody Concert Orchestra and Ursula Oppens' recital next Monday in the Baltimore Chamber Music Society series call to mind how the piano world is dominated by men, and how few women have achieved sizable pianistic careers.

You might think it would be the other way around. At all major schools of music -- from Moscow to Tokyo to Bloomington, Ind. -- more women than men study the piano and women are surely no less talented musically. Yet if one thinks about the great stars of the keyboard, only three women -- Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich and Mitsuko Uchida -- enjoy careers even remotely comparable to the most successful men.

And this situation characterizes all of classical instrumental music. Relative to the number of female superstars in opera, ballet, film and theater, there are very few women among the superstars, whatever the instrument. This all has to do with cultural prejudice against women, but the bias is difficult to talk about because it is embedded in lan- See PIANO, 0X, Col. 0PIANO, from 1Xguage itself.

Why is it, for example, possible to praise a man's playing in terms that are "feminine" such as "elegant," "graceful" and "tender," but less acceptable to describe a woman's playing in "masculine" terms such as "masterful" and "heroic"? And why do we say a man played "like a god," but that a woman played "like an angel"?

The distance that women pianists have to travel to equal the success achieved by men is nothing less than that which separates the seraphim from the Deity.

The reason that women have traditionally shined most brilliantly in drama, in opera, in ballet and in films is that they are playing roles as women -- roles usually designed by male choreographers, writers and film makers. (As a corollary, it's interesting to note that it's in opera that women have achieved the greatest prominence and it's opera in which women inevitably play victims on the scaffolds erected by men.)

But if performers can be said to send messages, those sent by instrumental music are not identified -- or so it would seem -- in terms of sex. Conventional wisdom tells us that identifiable emotions are transmitted in other performing arts; in instrumental music, it's abstract sensation.

This seeming sexlessness of instrumental music characterizes it, however, as a male domain. The gender division in the arts dates back to earliest times -- when men beat drums and played flutes and women danced and sang -- and it continued in the use of music in religious services that excluded women from participation.

In the 19th century, there were a few important female instrumentalists -- the great pianist Clara Schumann chief among them. But for the most part, playing the piano (or any other instrument) in public was considered unseemly for a woman. Several great female pianists succeeded Schumann -- Teresa Carreno (at the turn of the century), Guiomar Novaes, Dame Myra Hess and (closer to our own time) Gina Bachauer and the still-active de Larrocha. But none ever achieved the fame or the ++ fees of the top men.

Men -- despite the penguin-suit uniformity of their concert attire -- seem to be the ones who traditionally exert more sex appeal than their more alluringly dressed female colleagues. That this is the case has to do with the way we traditionally think about the way men play some of their repertory -- "conquering" or "taming" a huge concerto by Brahms or Rachmaninoff is seen as "sexier" (if not more musical) than playing one by Mozart or Chopin.

And it's the big pieces that women traditionally eschewed. When a few women (notably Bachauer and Hess) did play such concertos, it was said of them -- somewhat equivocally -- that they played "like a man." Almost all of the important women pianists were matronly figures; it was almost as if a young, nubile woman was too threatening for the male-dominated decorum of the concert platform.

That all began to change in the '60s -- partly because of the sexual revolution and because of two young women instrumentalists, Argerich and the tragically short-lived cellist, Jacqueline DuPre. Both played with physical abandon and raw sensuality that was heretofore almost inconceivable from a woman player.

One of the works that no woman was supposed to be able to perform successfully was Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto -- its wide stretches seemed to demand a man's larger hands and its never-let-up 40-minute duration required the strength and stamina that only men were supposed to possess. Argerich shattered that myth. No one -- not even Vladimir Horowitz in his youth -- ever played the piece with such power and brilliance.

And it looks as if Argerich will have worthy successors -- among them the powerful, relentlessly secure Russian, Lilya Zilberstein, and the passionate, lyrical Frenchwoman, Helene Grimaud. These attractive young women do not look like matrons and no one is stupid enough to suggest that they "play like men." If the piano's still something of a man's world, it won't be that way for long.

Piano concerts


What: Plays works by Beethoven, Chopin and Scriabin.

When: Tonight, 7:30.

Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University.

Tickets: $16.

% Call: (410) 516-7164.

` MARIAN HAHN What: Plays Brahms' D-minor Concerto with Peabody Concert Orchestra, Hajime Teri Murai conducting.

When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

Where: Friedberg Concert Hall at the Peabody Conservatory.

Tickets: $10.

% Call: (410) 659-8124.



What: Plays works by Beethoven and Elliot Carter.

When: Dec. 16, 8 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art.

Tickets: $13.

Call: (410) 486-1140.

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