One of the happiest surprises of blogging has been the connections and friendships I’ve made with composers, pianist, and writers all over the English-speaking world. Dr. Michael Low is one of many friends brought into my life through No Dead Guys. A Cape Town, South Africa pianist and educator, Low possesses a rare combination of high artistic ideals, refreshing humility, and irreverent sense of humor. In emails, WeChat calls, and in his videos on YouTube, Low radiates a passion for the beauty and nobility of playing and teaching the piano. He believes in the power of music.
This guest article grew out of conversations we had about the dark side of our noble profession: the human tendency to worship at the feet of our musical heroes, even when those heroes are shown to have feet of clay. As Low insightfully asks, “…do we have any justification to be angry and annoyed when we continue to make excuses and indulge our favorite musicians and performers for their eccentricities, even when these are often at our own expense?” Using his own journey with hero worship as his guide, Low reminds us that, ultimately, the responsibility for our disappointment with badly behaved heroes lies within ourselves. It is an honor to share his thoughts on No Dead Guys. Written By Rhonda Rizzo
A guest post by Dr. Michael Low
I remember the day I bought my first ever concert ticket to see Andras Schiff in London. Sir Andras had been scheduled to play Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto, coupled with the reading and concert performance of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. (Just to clarify matters, Sir Andras only appeared as a soloist in the first half of the concert. The program after the intermission featured completely different soloists, apart from the orchestra and the conductor.)
“It all sounded like death to me,” was my friend Michael’s assessment of the concerto. Although Michael was not a musician, he was kind enough to accompany me to the concert and found the entire concert-going experience somewhat strange, yet fascinating: “always lots of coughing during the movements” was Michael’s other observation of the evening. Unlike Michael, I was more hot-headed than observant and I didn’t think much of the actual concerto or Sir Andras’s performance. He could have played the solo part sitting on the piano for all I cared. This was my moment to be in the presence of one of the twentieth century’s most prolific musician and performer. During the interval I went backstage and waited in line to congratulate the soloist, whom I found courteous and eloquent. Afterwards I found myself in a much more relaxed state of mind and duly enjoyed Bluebeard’s Castle: the doors which leads to Bluebeard’s kingdom and the lake of tears made quite an impression on me and still do to this day.
My encounter with Sir Andras served as the start of my obsession with the icons of the classical music industry. In the years to follow, I attended the performances of Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, John Lill, Murray Perahia, Sir Georg Solti, Phillip Fowke, Fou T’song and Maurizio Pollini to name but a few. I have particularly fond memories of my meeting with Pollini after his complete cycle of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas in the Royal Festival Hall. “You like?”the pianist asked me when I congratulated him, “Devastating,” was my answer as I shook Pollini’s hand (with hindsight “Devastating” is a dubious comment to say the least!) “I sign here?” Pollini asked again pointing to the copy of my program. “Grazie signore,” was my reply. During a summer piano course, I met an eminent professor who served as the jury member in one of the Tchaikovsky International Competition. I was in awe of his account of Moscow and the fact that he (and his colleagues), were largely responsible for the career paths of Boris Berezovsky, Kevin Kenner, Stephen Mason-Prutsman and Enrico Pace. I will also never forget meeting a brilliant Romanian student at Dartington International Summer School, who made everyone’s jaw dropped when he told us that his neighbor in Romania was none other than Radu Lupu! Fortunately for this gentleman, his playing made as much impression on all of us as the location of his family home.
My penchant for household names extended beyond classical music. As a teenager, I was an avid bludgeoner of the tennis ball and always made the annual summer pilgrimage to Wimbledon. During my first visit, I was ushered off the famous Court of Death (the old Court 2) by security marshals when I approached Martina Navratilova for her autograph before her doubles match. “Maybe after the match,” she said to me politely. I came home empty-handed, but returned to SW19 in the proceeding years to acquire the autograph of Pete Sampras and high-fived Andre Agassi (who had a very stiff-looking Brad Gilbert as part of his entourage), before having a cool drink at the same table as someone who looked identical to Jennifer Ehle. Although I didn’t ask, part of me desperately wanted the lady sitting opposite me to be the English actress, especially after her performance in the television adaptation of Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn. During my studies at University, I was happy (and at the same time somewhat relieved) to learn that I was not the only starstruck tennis autograph hunter. A housemate of mine at the time confessed that she literally had “a huge orgasm” after Mark Philippoussis’s fingers slowly grazed the palm of her hand when she asked for his autograph. The same housemate had hoped that her meeting with Philippoussis would be the Vorpsiel to their duet in the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Sadly for her, Isolde’s Liebestod is always sung by the soprano by herself.
I cannot speak for my peers, but my fascination with celebrities and household names can be traced back to my upbringing. My father was an ambitious, working-class immigrant who told his children that success and happiness in life was can only be measured by fame and fortune (little does my late father know that nowadays this is measured by the amount of likes and views on your social media post). As a result, being somewhat rich and well-known became a symbol of the unattainable, and to put it crudely, I wanted something that I never had. I began to elevate people I admire onto pedestals, especially those I feel akin to, such as my favorite musicians, in the hope that one day I will be just as, if not more, successful than they. I made every effort to familiarize myself with the names of piano professors who teach at the world’s most prestigious conservatoires; these were (in my not-so-humble opinion back then) divine prophets tasked with spreading the word of the musical gospel. For me to have even a glimpse into their extraordinary lives was the very stuff musical wet dreams are made of. Again in my not-so-humble teenage opinion, these individuals existed in a superior socio-musical sphere and the chances of me being anywhere near – let alone learning from – them was not only highly improbable, but practically impossible.
Fast forward to 2004 and to a Harvard graduate by the name of Mark Zuckerberg.
The rest, as they say… is history.
“It is our mission to try to help connect everyone around the world and to bring the world closer together” was part of Zuckerberg’s ‘not guilty’ plea when questioned by members of the Senate during the notorious Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2010.
And no truer words then Zuckerberg’s have been spoken, with regard to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The household names and celebrities whom I had sought after, and whose lives I thought I would never be able to a part of, are now just a mouse-click or an add button away. I remember feeling terribly proud when the Official Martha Argerich Facebook page liked one of my comments. Even more so, I felt a sense of pride when Artur Pizarro replied to one of my messages agreeing with my pianistic point of view. I even took a leap of faith and added the likes of Noriko Ogawa to my friends list, only to feel an even greater sense of joy when she accepted. Unfortunately for me, Grigory Sokolov, whose playing I revere, doesn’t have much of a social media presence, but I continue to show my support by reacting positively to new posts on the pianist’s Facebook page.
The problem with social media and having a huge following is twofold: firstly, every single opinion you post will be scrutinized to the nth degree (it also doesn’t help when the original post or ‘story’ is often open to misinterpretation); secondly, and perhaps more importantly, everyone on social media has an opinion, and I mean everyone.
When a famous musician behaves in a less than exemplary manner, we are only too keen to throw our opinion into the comment section. After all, we are the ones who put the damn tiaras on their heads in the first place. Or do we feel obliged to speak out because the image of our beloved art form is now tarnished? (I would argue that, like most art forms, Western Art Music is synonymous with a certain image or ideal; a big part of Andre Rieu’s success lies in his ability to capture his audience’s imagination of what they think classical music is, as opposed to what it actually is). Finally, do we express our disdain because there is a sense of anger, the feeling of being let down by those whom we looked up to and idolized, hence the need for retribution? This may not be a popular opinion, but do we have any justification to be angry and annoyed when we continue to make excuses and indulge our favorite musicians and performers for their eccentricities, even when these are often at our own expense? For example, Glenn Gould’s close circle of friends have been quoted on how the pianist was fond of long telephonic conversations, not because Gould wanted to keep in touch, but because the pianist himself was merely interested in having a sounding board, to the extent that one friend ended up falling asleep (Gould himself had not realized this and carried on talking) while another had to endure the pianist’s ‘not so pleasant voice’ when Gould proceeded to sing an entire one-act opera to him. My thoughts after watching the interviews with these victims were: if you guys find Gould’s telephonic antics annoying, yet at the same time you are prepared to indulge him, then you have absolutely no leg to stand on when he dials your number.
I cannot speak for my fellow musicians, but when prominent social media platforms broke the news of alleged sexual assaults and harassments, as well as unfair treatment and verbal abuse of orchestral members involving eminent conductors, I remembered feeling desolated rather than angry. I was also conflicted because these were some of my favorite artists who have made (in my humble opinion) definitive recordings of some of my favorite musical works. As a music educator, I believe that any fruitful student/teacher relationship is the result of mutual respect, trust and admiration. Hence when a certain perpetrator propounds that being sexually uninhibited allows one to be more expressive in one’s musical interpretation, and then goes as far as to ‘assist’ his students to become more comfortable with their bodies, I cannot but feel strongly that ethical boundaries have been crossed. And even if this particular individual may have a point, surely such explorations form part of the student’s personal journey and should not be foisted on them by an individual in a position of power and trust?
I also often wondered why these high-profile misdemeanors were allowed to continue as long as they did. One possible explanation could be that the institutions who knew about these allegations were reluctant (for whatever reason) to get their hands dirty and risk opening Pandora’s Box. It is well known, for example, that the Catholic order, instead of dismissing those who were found guilty of committing sexual abuse and paedophilia, reshuffled the clergy, thus enhancing the perpetrator’s aura of invincibility. The American sportswriter Robert Lusetich made a similar argument when following Tiger Woods’s most tumultuous season of 2009. Lusetich noted that Woods’s extra-marital affairs had been well-known for some time in certain circles. However, Woods’s management team had been supremely successful at keeping the sportsman’s social indiscretions under wraps. And since Woods’s conscience clearly never troubled him, there was no sense of accountability, but only the belief in his own invincibility, which he carried onto the golf course (I recalled watching the Alex Cejka’s implosion in the final round of The Players Championship in 2009 when he was paired with Woods). The same can be said of these conductors in question: if they continue to be shielded by the institutions they serve, it is no wonder they consider themselves gods amongst men (In more ways than one: orchestral conductors are often placed in a more elevated position than other musicians, and this can only serve to reinforce their cloak of invincibility).
Earlier in 2022, there were accounts of how an eminent pianist complained about members of the audience leaving their seats for toilet breaks because he had taken the decision to exclude any intervals in his recital. The same pianist was known to have stopped a performance to publicly chastise the page turner a few years ago. Needless to say, keyboard warriors weighted in with their punches whilst some leapt to the defense of the pianist: apparently being completely consumed by music is an acceptable excuse for such bad manners. I must say that I find this argument somewhat bizarre, to say the least: when violence and hooliganism occur during sports in especially football (or soccer as it is known in America), did anyone take the side of those causing chaos and say, “Oh well, this was bad but it was also understandable and, in some ways, inevitable because these fans are so passionate about football…” And furthermore, since when has classical music become a pitchfork that enables one person to stab another with? I think it is possible that many lovers of classical music are compelled to stand up for their favorite artists because they find it difficult to separate the artist from the human being: It is absolutely possible to be an @rs3hole while also being able to play an instrument beautifully, and by the same token, I also know of many musicians whose company I enjoy more than their actual playing. In short, it is perfectly possible to admire and respect someone’s musical achievements without liking them as a person, and vice versa.
Maybe I am just getting old, or perhaps I am at the stage of my life where I am not easily impressed by a lot of s**t anymore… but when I found a copy of the documentary about the Tchaikovsky Competition I mentioned earlier in the article, I was excited by the thought of reliving all the accounts of Moscow as told by that certain piano professor whom I met many years ago. However, as I watched the documentary, I find myself getting increasingly agitated every time this man appeared on camera. Not only do I find his delivery obnoxious, I now find his opinion unnecessarily crass and unforgiving. By the end of the documentary, I was sad because I realized that I had made a god out of a mere mortal, along with countless others. In fairness to these musicians that I have idolized, none of them asked me to put them on the pedestal. With hindsight, my anger and disappointment became the spur to my artistic awakening (or as the Germans puts it so eloquently, my Künstlerberufung), triggered by the moment when I realized that the words of many famous musicians and teachers are not the gospel truth, but merely their own opinions, and often the result of their emotional whims and social inadequacies. What I have envied years before was merely the sheer ability to deliver opinions with gusto and lack of self-doubt (or at the very least the ability to convince others), something that was foreign to me in terms of my culture and schooling. This was the moment when I stopped looking for approval and affirmation in regards to my own musical opinion and my own pianistic ability. I remember going to bed with this truly liberating feeling in my body as I looked forward to practicing the next day: the moment I finally realized that what I had to say was truly unique, and perhaps most important of all, that what I had to say was valid.
As a teenager, Dr. Michael Low studied piano under the guidance of Richard Frostick before enrolling in London’s prestigious Centre for Young Musicians, where he studied composition with the English composer Julian Grant, and piano with the internationally acclaimed pedagogue Graham Fitch. During his studies at Surrey University in England, Michael made his debut playing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the 1999 Guildford International Music Festival, before graduating with Honours under the tutelage of Clive Williamson. In 2000, Michael obtained his Masters in Music (also from Surrey University), specialising in music criticism, studio production and solo performance under Nils Franke.
An international scholarship brought Michael to the University of Cape Town, where he resumed his studies with Graham Fitch. During this time, Michael was invited to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto for The Penang Governer’s Birthday Celebration Gala Concert. In 2009, Michael obtained his Doctorate in Music from the University of Cape Town under the supervision of South Africa greatest living composer, Hendrik Hofmeyr. His thesis set out to explore the Influence of Romanticism on the Evolution of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes.
Michael is the co-founder of the Elvira Ensemble – a Classical Chamber Orchestra specialising in the Piano Concertos of Mozart and Beethoven as well as Soundtracks from Blockbuster Hollywood Movies. The Ensemble have given performances at several high-profile events such as the wedding of Justin Snaith, South Africa’s leading race-horse trainer. In January 2020, the ensemble was engaged to perform at the wedding of the former Miss Universe and Miss South Africa, Miss Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.
Michael has also worked with numerous eminent teachers and pianists, including Nina Svetlanova, Niel Immelman, Frank Heneghan, James Gibb, Phillip Fowke, Renna Kellaway, Carolina Oltsmann, Florian Uhlig, Gordon Fergus Thompson, Francois du Toit and Helena van Heerden.
Michael taught extensively in Singapore from 2013 until 2019 and served as a jury member in the 2nd WPTA Singapore International Piano Competition in 2020. He has also appeared as a guest speaker and conducted a series of online masterclasses for the WPTA Indonesia in 2021. Future engagements includes masterclasses and workshops in London, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Michael currently resides in Cape Town, where he holds teaching positions in two of Cape’s exclusive education centres: Western Province Preparatory School and Herschel School for Girls. He is very much sought after as a passionate educator of young children.