Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Memory of Alicia de Larrocha and Richard Milhous Nixon

The great Spanish pianist Alica de Larrocha passed away the other day, full of years and honors. She was one of the greatest pianists of our time, and one of the greatest pianists I ever saw live. She was peerless in Spanish repertoire, with no equal in the great Spanish masters of the early 20th century, Albeniz, Granados, and Mompou, and was no slouch when it came to the classical composers either, and was the epitome of pelllucidity, precise and profoundly coherent, in the music of Haydn, Beethoven, and, above all, Mozart. It was at a Mostly Mozart concert in Avery Fisher Fall that I saw her, and I will never forget the concert, or its date, August 8th, 1974.

For most readers of this blog, the date will require no further annotation, it was one of those days before the days when everyone remembers where they were, like December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001. But unlike those two days, there was nothing surprising (though it was still very shocking) about what was going to happen; Richard Nixon was about to resign the presidency, and the week’s news was all about the drumbeat of Republican defections, all telling Nixon that the jig was up, the game was over.
Now, I had followed the two years of Watergate like no story I have followed before or since, watched countless hours of televised hearings, read all the articles and books, and knew all the players, major or minor, and watching the demise of the political career of Richard M. Nixon reach its denouement was deeply gratifying. By the time I left for de Larrocha recital, I knew that Nixon had a speech from the Oval Office scheduled that evening for 8 pm, and though I wanted to stay home and hear it, I wasn’t about to eat the ticket I had purchased for the recital, though I brought a transistor radio with me to catch whatever gleanings I could once the concert was over.
So I went, and the crowd was electric, and however much people wanted to hear one of the world’s great pianists, the only thing that everyone wanted to talk about, except no doubt for a handful of sullen Republicans, was the resignation speech that evening. It was the sort of night when strangers started animated conversations with strangers, and it felt more like a political rally than a classical concert.
I was wondering what Madame de Larrocha was thinking about all of this. She was, as far as I knew (and know) completely apolitical, but I also knew that her revered teacher, Frank Marshall, had been a fervent supporter of Franco (who of course was still alive—though his slow shuffling off the mortal coil was already the butt of jokes), and I assumed her politics were rather conservative and Francoist. Let’s just say I wasn’t expecting hear a piano transcription of “Los Quatros Generales” as an encore. And I wondered what the great pianist, who had lived for forty years under a near-fascist dictatorship, was thinking about the amazing eruption of democracy that America was then experiencing.
Well, before the recital began, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker system, to the effect that because of the tremendous interest in Nixon’s address that evening, Madame de Larrocha has consented to let the address be broadcast live. Everyone clapped. (I forget if the speech was before the recital, or during intermission, though my memory is that it was during intermission.) And as loud as we applauded her peerless performances of the K.330 sonata and the last movement of that never-fail crowd pleaser, the rondo alla turca of K.331, the loudest shouts of the evening occurred when Nixon got to the part of the speech where he said, “therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.” I was a thrill to hear that speech in a public venue, with some 2,000 persons, most of whom shared my great excitement at the news.
Anyway, I don’t ever remember enjoying a concert, or being a New Yorker, as much as I did on that evening, walking to the subway with the special glow you can get from great music and the special sort of glee you get from seeing your enemies humbled and vanquished. And if it was the final fall from grace of tumbledown Dick that made the evening so special, we never would have gathered together were it not for the consummate artistry of Alicia deLarrocha, whose artistry will survive as long as people remain interested in the beauty of the piano.

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