FOUR HANDS AND FUN MAKE BETTER MUSIC © Duncan Graham
To sing Surabaya select the key of C major. That’s C for Commerce writ large in the machine melodies of Mammon. For the East Java capital is famous for its industry and chaos, its energy and pollution.
And the pianistic talents of its citizens.
Sounds, well, out of tune with reality?
You’d better believe it because the author of this unusual statement is no sycophant, but a robust critic, a professor of music in Paris, an international concert pianist, and a teacher in Asia and Europe.
Frenchman Patrick Zygmanowski, 36, first visited Indonesia four years ago. At the time he found audience behaviour abysmal and musical standards not much better.
But since then he claims there’s been a significant change, which he puts down to maturity, more listening, travel to Europe by teachers and students, and a growing sophistication among musicians and lovers of classical music.
“I’ve run master classes in Jakarta, Denpasar, Yogya and Surabaya, and there’s no doubt that the top students in Surabaya are now the best,” he said. “They’re even better than in Singapore.
“I hope that next year in association with Indonesian music schools we’ll be able to organise a national piano competition with preliminary rounds in Medan, Jakarta and Bandung – with the grand final in Surabaya.
“Students in Paris have lost their passion. They expect free access to everything, museums, art courses, and the theatre. Here in Indonesia it’s a big thing to go to a live performance.
“I was asked how many concerts would be held in Paris because there are only three or four a year in Surabaya. I said there’d be around 30 – every day! Classical music should be for everyone, not just the rich.”
The other change noted by Zygmanowski is a growing respect for artists in Indonesia. He said it’s no longer commonplace for people to take mobile phone calls during a performance.
“Sadly it’s not like that in China,” he said. “The concert halls and facilities are incredible – and so are the pianos. But people talk, chat on the phone, smoke and eat chips. It’s very distracting – but what can you do? It’s the culture.”
What hasn’t changed in Indonesia is the stiff presentation of music, reminiscent of the era before US composer Leonard Bernstein started talking to audiences, explaining the music, deepening appreciation and introducing fun.
At a Surabaya Symphony Orchestra performance in a five-star hotel to celebrate this year’s Independence Day the atmosphere was solemn and restrained while the music was lively and mostly joyous.
“It’s still like that in Japan and China,” said Zygmanowski’s Japanese wife Tamayo Ikeda who is also a concert pianist. “The women wear puffy ball gowns and lots of taffeta. It’s rigid. I can’t stand that. I want to be myself.
“The teaching is also very strict – the Japanese are like the Germans, disciplined, which is probably why so many want to go to that country. You have an obligation to do exactly what your teacher wants and you cannot express your own opinion. It’s so different in France – a completely new world of teaching.”
Ikeda, 35, went to Paris as a teenager to further her music studies which began when she was three. The couple have been together since 1992 and have two sons. Their bilingual firstborn Kaito, 4, has started playing the piano.
Her move to Europe as a teenager was in the tradition of top Japanese musicians who study the classical European arts at their source.
Zygmanowski, who started studying music when he was six, said most of his students in Paris were from Japan and Korea. To help them better understand classical music and the culture which gave it life, he asked them to visit art galleries and read poetry associated with the era of the composer they were trying to master.
“If, for example, you’re playing Debussy, a particular favorite for the Japanese, you should see the works of (impressionist painter) Claude Monet and read the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire,” he said. “Then come back a week later and we’ll discuss everything. I believe it’s important that the teacher and student develop a special relationship”.
Apart from running master classes in Surabaya the couple performed as a piano duet (meaning four hands on one keyboard) with a program of Mozart, Ravel and Gershwin.
Their style is flamboyant, with both bottoms bouncing on the shared stool, Ikeda’s long hair taking flight as in a TV shampoo commercial. She’s a particularly demonstrative player and lets her arms soar high above the keyboard. Her husband is not much different. The effect is a whirling windmill of limbs.
To get at some of the notes they had to make spider-like arm movements over their partner’s flying wrists. They encouraged the audience to clap in time – which in an Indonesian auditorium is usually considered crass behavior by the bejewelled set peering over their designer spectacles.
The couple’s performance, which was as much theatre as music, caught the audience unawares – but the response was overwhelmingly positive, with three encores.
“Four hands is a difficult performance - it’s much easier to play alone,” said Ikeda. “Originally we didn’t want to play together, but we’ve made it our speciality and in classical music that’s unusual. We have to be in emotional synch, to listen to the music.
“We have to feel each other’s characters, to respond to each other’s feelings, to sense moods and make allowances. It’s rare and it’s really rather wonderful. I think it’s easier because we’re married.”
(First published in The Sunday Post 10 September 2006)