Piano dance

A recent New York Times article about alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans by Harvard’s admission officers concludes as follows:

But if Harvard were race-blind, the plaintiffs say, its freshman class would be about 40 percent Asian-American, like the University of California, Berkeley, a public institution that has to abide by a state ban on racial preferences.

I remember hearing, during my tenure at UC Berkeley which ended two and a half decades ago, from a high-ranking campus official that if admissions (at least to the engineering programs) were based on academic criteria only, then the percentage of Asian-Americans would be closer to 100. And in my own experience of screening applications into the highly selective bioengineering program, I had to struggle to find two or three places (out of 25) for applicants of non-Asian ancestry.

And, in the long course of my attendance at various musical events at the university, I have never ceased to be amazed at the abundance of musically talented Asian-Americans who were also gifted in scientific disciplines. A description like “double major in music and molecular and cell biology” (sometimes followed by “due to begin medical studies at Harvard”) is not all that unusual.

I was privileged to attend a piano  recital by just such a student at last Wednesday’s noon concert.

The pianist tossed off some devilishly difficult pieces by Debussy and Franck with effortless technique. But she was also a strikingly attractive young woman, clad in a stylish black sleeveless gown that showed off her slim figure and shapely arms. And it’s the arms that I mean to write about.

In my more than seventy years of concert-going, I don’t recall ever experiencing a piano recital or concerto performance as a visual spectacle. The body language of conductors or violinists, yes. But pianists? They just sit.

But this young pianist’s arms performed a graceful dance as they moved over the keyboard, especially — but not only — during the copious hand crossing that some of the pieces required. The experience was not so different from watching a ballet.

I have seen many pianists in my lifetimes. Most of them have been male — from Rubinstein, Backhaus and Gieseking to Thibaudet and Lang — and so of course their arms are encased in tuxedo sleeves. And it seems to me that the women pianists I’ve seen (Alicia de Larrocha, Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida…) have also worn sleeved dresses. Though one can find online photographs of a sleeveless young Larrocha or Argerich, I have no memory of watching a pianist’s arms dance as she played.

It’s a memory that will stay in my mind.

 

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