Yesterday, as I was scrambling some eggs, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” came on the classical radio station I listen to every morning. Usually the station plays Ravel’s orchestral version, but yesterday they aired it in its original form–played by a single pianist–which is, by far, my favorite version. It’s my favorite in part because all of that intensity and richness coming out of a single instrument is somehow more majestic and dramatic to me than when it’s dispersed throughout an orchestra. But it’s also my favorite because it conjures up memories of one of my most intense ‘celebrity’ crushes growing up.
While all the other girls at my junior high were swooning over Duran Duran and putting up posters of Simon Le Bon, I was enthralled by an Irish concert pianist named Barry Douglas. He was the winner of the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, which was aired in a documentary on PBS that my family watched together after dinner one evening. Both of my parents loved classical music, and all four of us kids took piano lessons. For a number of years we had two pianos in the house just so we could all fit in the hours of practicing required–one in the living room, and one shoved between my sister’s and my bunkbed and the closet. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized growing up with a piano in your bedroom wasn’t exactly the norm.
Someone was always practicing piano at my house, and very often two of us were at the same time, which I would use to my advantage whenever I could manage to be the one practicing in the back bedroom. I would prop whatever novel I was currently engrossed in on the music stand and keep reading while I played scales and arpeggios over and over. It usually took awhile for anyone to catch on and bust me (yes, my rebellious behavior growing up was reading books when I was supposed to be working on my piano technique). One of the things I missed the most when my older siblings went off to college was hearing them on the piano, working through the same passage over and over until it flowed (my mother shouting comments from the kitchen where she was making dinner–“Ugh, that was so sloppy!” and later “Beautiful!”). I can’t even begin to count the number of nights I fell asleep listening to someone playing the piano.
So, all of that to say that the Tchaikovsky Competition (beat the Russians at their own game in their own country!) was a very big deal. There were a lot of engaging and appealing contestants featured in the documentary, but Barry was first in my heart from the beginning. There were several rounds in the competition, the finale being Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, which was played by every single one of the finalists. This is the piece he won with and this is the work he recorded in his first major recording after the competition (which I bought on cassette tape as soon as it was released). But the performance I’ll never forget is the one earlier in the competition where he played Mussorgsky. Here he is, in all of his twitchy, sweaty, handsome, masterful glory–owning this piece like nobody’s business and, in turn, winning the heart of a nerdy seventh grader in braces and thick glasses: