Everyone a Virtuoso

Anthony Tommasini observes that technical skill once considered extraordinary is now the norm:

A new level of technical excellence is expected of emerging pianists. I see it not just on the concert circuit but also at conservatories and colleges. In recent years, at recitals and chamber music programs at the Juilliard School and elsewhere, particularly with contemporary-music ensembles, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer level of instrumental expertise that seems a given.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie “Shine,” about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: “One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it.”

There are all these interesting questions about history and progress (or declension?) and the meaning of art, I think, embedded in narratives like these. Throughout the piece, Tommasini hints that he doesn’t really know what kind of story he’s telling. Classical music is everywhere in decline, classical musicians are everywhere more formidable.

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