Minnesota Chopin Society revives the art of piano

By Michael Richter

Last Saturday marked the first of five piano recitals presented each year by the Frederic Chopin Society of Minnesota. The society, which has been using the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center since 1986, brings in talents at the highest level. Saturday’s soloist, 20 year-old pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, won top prizes at international piano competitions and just released her first album. The Society is operated by a group of people who have a deep commitment to the art of piano and the classical tradition. “It is like a religion for us,” said Mary Sigmond, the Society’s President. “We are a group who want to hear the music played live and played live well. We’re interested in something directed toward a more intimate crowd.” The fact that they only offer solo piano in their programs makes them unique in the Twin Cities, and their concerts are a sure way for someone in the Macalester community to get a glimpse of what used to be the dominant form of musical performance.In many ways, the Chopin Society offers something from a different era. In the mid-20 century, classical piano was the most common way for Americans to approach music. It was considered something of a standard for middle-class families to own a piano, and many people would tune-in to radio and television broadcasts of performances by great European pianists. Sigmond described how when she was younger, “you couldn’t even turn on a cartoon without hearing classical music. People used to be exposed to it on regular basis.” But for one reason or another, the days of kids watching their favorite cartoon characters play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody are over. Public interest in classical music is declining, and performances are getting less attention as a result.

Many piano enthusiasts argue that the declining popularity of piano has lead to a drop in the quality of performers. Their opinion stems from the idea that tradition of romantic pianism ended in the 1980s and 1990s, with the deaths of legends like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. For many, pianists like these set a standard for which all modern-day pianists are measured, and very few can even compare. The Chopin Society is confident in the quality of young pianists, but Sigmond acknowledged to some general differences in today’s performers. “There’s a lot more Polish as far as technique goes, but those from the golden era had something very individual, a certain sound of their own. It is something missing from pianists today.” The reason for this phenomenon is difficult to account for-part of it surely lies in culture. Many past performers grew up in societies that mirrored those of the composers, and their teachers came from old traditions of piano pedagogy. Another factor may also come from today’s approach to art. That lack of serious arts education has made people less inclined to see art as a discipline and more likely to treat it as a chance to relax, be creative and do something alternative. In the world of modern art, where the word “interesting” has replaced the word “beautiful,” it often seems like you are more likely to see a work about a political issue than anything showing personality or sentiment. Perhaps the values behind classical music do not fit in with this trend.

The pianists presented by the Chopin Society offer hope for those trying to hold onto the classical tradition. Arghamanyan received two standing ovations for her interpretations of Schumann and Chopin, and her quality was typical of pianists that perform here. However, with little student interest, organizations like the Chopin Society will find it difficult to find support in the future. More should be done to ensure students are exposed to the fine arts and get a chance to see performers who are at the peak of their discipline.

The next Chopin Society concert will be on Nov. 8. Information about the society along with ticket sales can be found at chopinsocietymn.org.