Frederic Rzewski didn’t expect a crowd. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, and he was performing his seminal work, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” on an upright piano at Wholey’s Fish Market, in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. News of the free event had spread by word-of-mouth: a couple of Facebook posts, some blurbs in the local newspapers. At the bottom of a Wholey’s advertisement, below pictures of salmon fillets, jumbo pink shrimp, New York strip steaks and lobster mac and cheese, a banner read: “Come Enjoy World Class Pianist Frederic Rzewski Performing an Original Work.”
The modest marketing effort aside, they came by the dozens: A bassoonist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the executive director of a local baroque ensemble, academics, students, all packed into the second floor of the fish market like the filling of a baked-stuffed lobster. There weren’t enough chairs to go around.
“I didn’t expect people to come who wanted to hear music,” Rzewski said in an interview following the performance. “I expected people to come who wanted to buy fish.”
“That was the idea,” said his son, Daniel, who works at Wholey’s. “The sound of the concert was supposed to go throughout the store, but the sound system didn’t work.”
While he lives in Belgium, Rzewski regularly travels to Pittsburgh to visit his sons, Daniel and Alexis. (The pop-up concert “was my boss’s idea,” Daniel said.) Last year, the pianist-composer gave a recital during the first Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, presented by Alia Musica, a new-music organization. The local Steinway Gallery loaned the piano for the Wholey’s show.
Rzewski, 77, hadn’t played “The People United” since 2013, and he realized the day of the performance that he could no longer read the small notes on his score. Federico Garcia-De Castro, artistic director of Alia Musica, brought in his own copy, was drafted a few minutes before the performance to turn Rzewski’s pages, and looked rather distressed during the following hour.
Unsurprisingly, the venue, decorated by dining tables covered with white paper, a bamboo plant, and a stuffed-animal arcade game, had its own ambient noises: diners chatting, dishes clanging, perhaps a mechanical cow singing. Near the end of the hour-long performance, some audience members began chanting the Spanish lyrics to the Sergio Ortega song on which the work’s main theme is based – a fairly common accompaniment to performance, Rzewski said. He decided not to play the work’s optional improvisatory cadenza. “I thought, this is long enough, and this situation is unpredictable, and anyway I decide these things when I come to the point at which an improvisation might be possible,” he said.
The circumstances were less than ideal, and it’s fair to assume Rzewski, while a force, did not give the best interpretation of this work. But that was beside the point. The concert was special, even unique, meeting whatever expectations I had of a piano recital performed in a classic Pittsburgh venue by an eminent composer. Then again, what expectations can one have of Rzewski?
Sometime in the late 1970s or thereabouts, Rzewski said, he performed “The People United” at a small communist festival in Tuscany, on a piano mounted on the back of a pickup truck. With Musica Elettronica Viva, the group with which he has performed for nearly five decades, he gave concerts at a mental hospital in Rome, at universities and at occupied factories.
“That was common at that time. We’re talking about the late 60s, early 70s. Luigi Nono used to do this kind of thing,” he said.
Still, it does seem like a prudential, if unrelated, anticipation of the interest in alternative venues and in bringing music to the people that is now being advocated for and enacted by classical music ensembles. I once read someone described as being a non-conformist before non-conformity became conformity. That seems to capture Rzewski’s spirit: He puts his scores on the Internet; he shirks the sorts of relationships between composer and publishers (“I hate them”), labels (“a bunch of thieves”), or orchestras that other successful artists frequently build their careers on – even if he made few mistakes along the way. (“Unfortunately, I have let myself be exploited by record companies, yes, and I’m sorry about it, but I was stupid.”)
In an age of carefully-considered self-branding, Rzewski’s disregard for such outside markers of success is refreshing. He has developed his audience in the realest way possible: Being unapologetically himself.
He can’t prove that making himself accessible to listeners has caused his success, but that method seems to be working. These days, he is spending more time composing than performing – in part because he’s getting more commissions, in part because he hates airplanes. One piece, written for Imani Winds, will receive its world premiere this fall at Duke University, and is based on the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Where others have tried to attach labels to Rzewski, he has dismissed them. And despite the crusty demeanor, Rzewski has reason to be positive.
“I would like to be a revolutionary optimist, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” he said. “I believe in Antonio Gramsci, who founded the Italian communist party, that you should be pessimistic in your thought and optimistic in your action, because that just may make the difference.”
Some of this reporting originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.