If you turn on ESPN and the commentators are waxing poetic about “athletes,” you can be pretty sure that they are not talking about musicians. But the definition of athlete, according to Merriam-Webster is “someone who is skilled in (activities) that require physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Music, Neuroimaging and Stroke Recovery Lab at Harvard Medical School calls musicians “auditory motor athletes.” Musicians have highly developed auditory and motor processes and have trained themselves to translate this knowledge through their bodies to their instruments. This requires mental and physical strength, agility, and stamina.
When I worked for the Toronto Symphony, the piano technicians always dreaded to find one particular musician on the schedule. This pianist was known for choosing challenging works that showcased the athletic side of performing: his choices were typically loud, fiendishly difficult, and spectacular to both watch and hear. But he was notorious for breaking piano strings. This reputation, of course, brought fear to the technicians’ hearts, because although they were highly skilled artists themselves, they were used to being able to perform their string installation and tuning magic in the privacy of the practice studio … not in front of an audience of hundreds! The technicians often told the story of the time this musician had broken a string during rehearsal—including the chaos that ensued—and their panic each time this pianist was asked to return.
Today’s musical selections do not feature any broking piano strings, but they do recognize athletes whose years of training and performing bring us works that only a few musicians dare to perform in public. The combination of athleticism and musicianship ensures that the works never succumb to mere technique, but always bring out the beauty in the babel.
Chopin – Etudes, Op 25 (3 excerpts)
Ernst – Variations on the Last Rose of Summer
Joshua Bell and Tobias Koch
Beethoven, Sonata #29 in Bb, Op.106 “Hammerklavier”