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Maria Ioudenitch reflects on performing with Peter Serkin

No matter what venue Curtis on Tour visited over the past two weeks, concertmaster Maria Ioudenitch always had the best seat in the house to observe soloist Peter Serkin.

Maria observes Peter Serkin as he performs in Vienna. Photo: Igor Ripak

Ask a handful of students, staff, or faculty members, “what was one of your favorite parts about this tour?” and many of their answers will be along the lines of, “being in such incredible cities and the greatest halls of the world.” And who can argue with that? From the vast yet charming paths of Helsinki to the jaw-dropping beauty of the Konzerthaus in Berlin, we are always left wondering, “is there really something more beautiful?” I have come to learn that indeed, there always is.

But ask me what one of my favorite parts was, and I’d say it was when Mr. Serkin saved a fly during his magical, otherworldly interpretation of the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed as an encore.

But before I get to that, a word about silence. Have you ever heard a silence that made your ears ring? That is what Mr. Serkin, and Maestro Osmo Vänskä achieved in the second movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 during our performance in Wroclaw, Poland.
Mr. Serkin warms up on a quiet stage in Wroclaw, Poland. Photo: Ania Filochowska

It first started with Mr. Vänskä and our pianissimo. No one else can get a sound like that out of our orchestra. We move through our phrase, guided by his presence on the podium, winding our dynamic down to a stunning nothing. And then comes in Mr. Serkin with the purest tone, one note dissipating brilliantly through the air. It was a drop of musical gold.

We live through the second movement together, and the last note is played. Then silence.

No one dared breathe. The music filled each soul on stage and in the audience. The silence was so loud, it was almost unbearable: 1200 people sitting, each with their own stories, their own problems, their own of happiness and pain, and right there and then, we were all One. Listen to true music making, and you can know peace.

(Keep in mind, that this silence was practically a physical miracle for a good percentage of us sitting on stage, with colds and other bugs brought on by a whirlwind tour. And still, Brahms healed us all, if only for a moment.)

Fast forward a bit, and the audience is on their feet – clapping wildly. Mr. Serkin comes on stage once, twice, and at the third bow turns to me, "it sounds like they’re booing, should I play something?"

I laugh. "What?! Of course, please play, please play!"

And then, the Aria.

I won’t say a word about it, because there is no point. The magic was there, and it will always be just there, frozen in that moment.

What I will recall, however, is the fat fly who decided to interrupt the magic. After a few manic seconds buzzing around, it landed on Mr. Serkin’s left hand pinky. I could see his eyes peering curiously at the fly. The fly got the memo and buzzed off of the finger and onto the key, dangerously close to the fingertip. The next note he was to play, was with that pinky, on that key. He hesitates, stretching time more than usual, looking intently at the stubborn fly, until the fly kindly buzzes away, after which Mr. Serkin’s pinky finally comes down on the key, continuing the phrase which was caught in a gorgeous standstill.

If his finger went down earlier, the fly would have probably been caught in between the keys.

Now, whether or not Mr. Serkin really wanted to save that fly is another story. (Which I will pursue a bit later.)

But there’s something about the gentleness and generosity with which Mr. Serkin approached all of this that is absolutely encompassing of the entire experience that we have had with him on tour. Someone else in this situation might have forcefully put down the finger or moved quickly to get the fly to fly away faster, but Mr. Serkin used time and patience. The music wasn’t going anywhere. The music didn’t stop on account of the fly—it kept flowing through him and through us. Time, patience, peace.

Mr. Serkin takes a bow as Maria looks on. Photo: Igor Ripak

We are all caught up in our own worlds, our own desires and complaints. This tour was a great test for all of that. How lucky we are, to have been to all of these places, to have worked with such artists, such soldiers of music!  There was no doubt that from the beginning, I would learn so much from Mr. Vänskä. We have all loved him ever since he worked with us two years ago. Without him…well…I’d like to not think what this tour would be without him.

But who knew how grateful I would be for this little golden moment in time with Mr. Serkin and the fly.

Violinist Maria Ioudenitch is the concertmaster of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra for the 2016-17 season and the European tour. She holds the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Annual Fellowship.