“Perhaps the best entertainer we have” – that’s what renowned sueddeutsche.de wrote one day after Chilly Gonzales’ show at Prinzregententheater, Munich. Only two days later, the über-boring newspaper of my hometown Karlsruhe, BNN (Badische Neueste Nachrichten), calls him a better “piano teacher”. Actually, this was supposed to be a review of the Karlsruhe concert, until BNN “invited” me to write down some thoughts about it.
I was pretty sure that those negative reviews were part of the past. When I first saw Chilly Gonzales live at Mousonturm, Frankfurt (back in 2008), he stopped in-between songs, turned to the audience and opened a book. Then he began to read with a surprisingly French sounding accent, which made the vituperations sound much nicer. Still, what he read were superficialities about a big nose and an even bigger ego, but also about his piano playing and songs. As part of the show, one could only laugh about those reviews, as they sounded like the antithesis to what one had just experienced. My heart was musically taken over on that very day. You can read here, where that leads to. However, over the years, the number of lampoons have drastically decreased, while the number of rave reviews have significantly sprouted. I could have guessed that just in my hometown, the local newspaper would send one of their journo-grumps. Still, it is thanks to him that a strange and embarrassing benchmark of the German classical music scene (to which Gonzales actually doesn’t want to belong) becomes obvious: Good is only what’s complicated and artistic, in the old circus sense.
The review starts with a “reproach”: Chilly Gonzales leads his audience to believe that his pieces are “fingerbreaking”, but they only SOUND as if they were really virtuosic! “Trivial piano music”, he calls it and even worse: one song would resemble the next over and over again. He interprets from his observations that Chilly Gonzales is a pretender, a dazzler. The German word for it is “Blender” meaning someone, who looks or acts so “shiny” and “iridescent” that others can’t see clearly anymore and take him for more than he actually is. Prior to this, of course, the arrogantly raised eyebrow and slightly disgusted glance at the audience that “went all delirious” while watching the performance – it sounds as if the journalist can hardly believe what he witnessed. Which directly leads us to the invisible, but existing two-class-society in the music scene: Music is either popular, meaning music for the plebs, or elitist and sophisticated, which suggests that it can only be correctly perceived by certain circles. In-between seems to be… nothing. Major and minor. Majorities and minorities. Black and white.
If only the gentleman would have paid more attention to Gonzales’ explanations on the keys – which, of course, was “music theory on a dubious level” – instead of grumping into his old-fashioned beard (figuratively speaking) and tearing apart his compositions: Gonzales “uses modally structured themes that he reels off over tiring and ongoing accompanying schemes of the left hand”. Harmonically, he “never leaves the 19th century”. This last remark needs some explanation. Karlsruhe is not known as the capital of intellectuality. All the more when it comes to music. There is only one contemporary composer, who has gained some worldwide fame: Wolfgang Rihm. Everything gets compared to him. The world can’t be wrong. Almost every school kid knows his name, almost nobody his oeuvre. However, he is known and loved by BNN; that’s why there seems to be the tacit motto: only atonal is avant-garde. Which suddenly leads to a question; isn’t music “allowed” to please? Isn’t harmony something really precious? Isn’t music, even when performed at the piano, to approach both, pop and time-honoured composers? Is music only worthwhile within an experimental frame? Isn’t it to huge parts about arising and living through emotions? Isn’t that one of the main reasons why music has been an important part of our lives for centuries? Let’s turn to the reviewer of sueddeutsche.de again and let him reply: “The 40-year old denies any hierarchy between high and pop culture – and with this reveals the intelligence of pop culture as a confident and creative force.”
Back to BNN. The journalist goes on: “Then, after introducing a certain theme, he usually continues with an interplay that tries to seek its salvation in complementary rhythms that he belts out toccata-style.” This way he pretends to sound virtuosic, but in fact isn’t, says the writer again. That makes us once more aware of the snobbism that seems to be stuck in some people’s ears. A great example of the fact that music doesn’t have to be “virtuosic” in an artistic sense, is “Ode to Joy” from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for sure, whose main theme’s melody is so simple even I can play it on the piano. Simple, yet overwhelming. Another fact bothering the author: Gonzales would “make use of any resentment against music that is more advanced than his” and “desperately tries not to seem like a bourgeois”. Furthermore he states that with Gonzales’ music it’s only an illusion that one “disgustingly turns the back on mainstream” – from which one doesn’t necessarily has to turn away. Hear, hear! First of all he puts Gonzales on the pillory, because his music is not elaborate enough, then follows the generous affection for mainstream music?
The only fact that becomes pretty clear when reading this review is that the writer did not “get” Chilly Gonzales and maybe neglected to research in advance. Gonzales doesn’t want to give people the impression they have to abjure pop or mainstream. On the contrary. He hates musical fascism. His mission is to free the piano from old straitjackets and rehabilitates it in the present. By the means of pop. Of rap. Of electro. Of classical music. Of humour. It seems BNN-man lacks the latter. Or is it a joke after all, when he, as a reference to the two piano lessons within the show, ends his review by saying: “A good piano teacher, that’s not the worst one can achieve”? A good piano teacher? Do 1,000 people cheer at and welcome Chilly Gonzales for his first encore with standing ovations, because they just saw a good piano teacher at work? Even more considered that the (let’s put it friendly) rather not too enthusiastic Badener show an excitement and rage I rarely experienced when going to (many) concerts in my hometown? Probably more so, because the people in Karlsruhe would agree with the people in Munich in one point: that they witnessed the probably best entertainer of our time and therefore show him the well-deserved respect. Oh, I forgot – we are just talking about the music mob…
Very good article. But how about writing: “… a strange and embarrassing benchmark of the GERMAN classical music scene.”? Germans haven’t yet figured out the magical colours between E-Musik and U-Musik, in fact dividing music into “serious” and “pop music” does not exactly qualify them as experts on the variety of musical styles. Gonzales would have never had a chance to come up as an artist if he happened to be German or living in Germany. I’m afraid in this country we’re lacking the fine antenna needed to recognize an artist like Gonzales as the virtous composer, pianist and entertainer he is.
Good point! Thank you for the feedback!