Maria João Pires and The Wrong Concerto

My feedreader’s been sadly neglected over the past few days — a condition produced primarily by my vacation, but perpetuated by a rising terror at the thousands of unread posts that would doubtless assail me upon opening its “pages” — so I’m coming to this story a bit later than the rest of the InterWebs. (Actually, the InterWebs themselves are getting to it a bit late. The YouTube video’s from 2009, and the original comes from a 1998 Dutch documentary, Attrazione d’amore.)

Let’s jump right in.

That is flat-out one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I can’t even get my mind around it.

Let’s back up for a second. That’s pianist Maria João Pires, a wonderful performer who is particularly renowned for her mastery of Mozart. And yes, that’s a video showing her reaction when she realizes that she’s come to the concert hall prepared to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467 and the orchestra’s just started in on his Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466.

So, after a few moments of utter panic — achingly obvious on her face and brutally painful to anyone who has ever performed — she does what any sane person would do:

She plays the proper concerto. From memory. And beautifully.

I’ll be honest: I actually teared up a little while watching her reel, recover, and then rise to the occasion. And I love that little exchange between her and the conductor where he reassures her, boosts her confidence, and guides her into the performance. Great stuff. (The deep, quavery breath she takes after completing the first passage really slays me.)

The event is described as a free lunchtime concert with Richard Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Apparently, these “lunch concerts” are a bit of a regular thing, and also a good bit less …starchy than your average classical performance – which helps to explain the somewhat informal attire. And also helps to explain the shocking fact that Miss Pires thought she was going to be performing an entirely different piece. Here’s the best explanation I could find:

They (Maria João, conductor, and orchestra) had recorded 6 months earlier three Mozart concerti. This lunch concert was the rehearsal for the evening performance. Since they had rehearsed to prepare the recording six  months earlier, this lunch concert was the only rehearsal. She came prepared to play K. 467 and was caught off guard by K. 466 ( although it has been in her repertory for years).

Oh, “for years,” you say? No problem, then.

Come on, people! IT’S THE WRONG CONCERTO! I can’t even begin to get my mind around that. As a poor-and-often-petrified performer myself, I can’t imagine being in her shoes and NOT rolling up into a ball until the world goes away. I’m flat-out armadillo-ing there, and quite possibly dying from shame and shock. I’m certainly not calming myself down, gathering my wits about me, and going on. Amazing. (A side-dish of amazing is that she’s not just shifting from being mentally prepared for a different work. She’s moving all in an instant from being emotionally prepared to perform the playful and sprightly 467 to the roiling impetuosity and uncertainty of 466. That’s basically impossible. Just…wow.)

HT to Anastasia Tsioulcas and NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog. And bonus reading material from Brits Damian Thompson and Stephen Hough – the former a great lover of classical music, and the latter a concert pianist of considerable gifts himself, whose confusion as to how the confusion came to be cannot mask his amazement at Miss Pires’ artistry.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • richard

    I’m always amazed at any concert pianist playing from memory. Particularly if the piece is composed by the likes of Prokofiev, Liszt, Rachmaninov, and a few others.

  • Gwen Filipski

    That was physically difficult for me to watch. My chest is still hurting, and the hairs on the back of my neck are sticking up. What a beautiful testament to the human ability to “reel, recover, and then rise to the occasion.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/summathissummathat Joseph Susanka

      I know exactly where you’re coming from, Gwen. I almost started to hyperventilate while watching. But man, does she come through with flying colors! (And I love Richard Chailly’s response. So calm, so reassuring.)

      • Gwen Filipski

        YES! Absolutely poised. Definitely a good conductor.


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