Are Einstein on the Beach and Stewart Goodyear about experiencing art or experiencing an experience?


The closer Luminato gets, the more I begin to wonder if two of this year’s big events are about transformative artistic experiences or about giving Toronto and visitors the opportunity to boast that they were able to experience the experience.

I won’t have a verdict until Saturday night, by which time I will have watched the Toronto premiere of Einstein on the Beach on Friday and sat through Stewart Goodyear’s near-12-hour rip through all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas on Saturday.

Instead, I’m laying bare some of my prejudices before the festival gets underway.

I’m a huge admirer of Philip Glass’s work, and love the evolution his craft has gone through over the past 36 years. His staged pieces have gained flow and shape, and the narrative elements have become more clear. But, quite frankly, the repetition that must have been so shocking when Jimmy Carter was president of the United States has lost its novelty for anyone used to listening to pattern music.

But we’ve never seen it staged in Toronto and tried to sit through 4 hours and 20 minutes of intermissionless show.

How many audience members will allow themselves to get transported in the zone beyond time and space that Glass and Robert Wilson conjure — and how many will spend 20 minutes in utter distraction, trying to figure out how they can get out of their seat for a washroom break?

No one has ever attempted to play all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in one day. As for the Beethoven Sonata marathon, several of the world’s most respected interpreters have performed them over the course of several days.

(CORRECTION: In response to the comment posted by Tom Deacon below, I went in search of precedents, and found two: American pianist Gary Goldschneider presented the first known sonata marathon by a single pianist in a single day in Amsterdam, in 1984 and went on to do a half-dozen more, the last one at the Concertgebouw, in 1999; British pianist Julian Jacobson tried this in 2003.)

Yes, both Goodyear and audience get washroom and meal breaks. But how much music — masterpiece or not — is a listener actually able to absorb, digest and remember in one waking moment?

Someone who should know better asked me in earnest last week whether playing an instrument in a concert is physically demanding.

Does Goodyear’s dare reinforce or undermine that question?

Will patrons go for the love of 19th century masterpieces or to boast that, like the pianist, they survived the experience?

More importantly, will Einstein and Goodyear alter the way we experience opera and the solo piano recital?

I’m looking forward to sharing some thoughts with you on these matters over the next few days.

Is that the value of Luminato?

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I just had a nice, long chat with American pianist Jonathan Biss, who is here with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week. When I described Goodyear’s project to him, all he could say in response was, “Jesus!”

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Here’s an assemblage of snippets from the Montpelier performances of Einstein, taken on March 17:

John Terauds

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4 thoughts on “Are Einstein on the Beach and Stewart Goodyear about experiencing art or experiencing an experience?

  1. John, you should know that many pianists have played the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. Google the subject and you will find all their names.
    This does not in any way take away from Stewart Goodyear’s project or his hoped for accomplishment.
    You’re right about absorbing so much music. That’s our task, to stay focused, attentive, receptive over 12 full hours.
    One thing is sure: there is not a dull moment in any of those works. So, if Steward does his job right, and we do our job right, we will all come out the better for the experience, n’est-ce pas?

  2. I don’t know about Einstein on the Beach — that’s a long time to sit through repetitive music — but I’m certainly looking forward to the Beethoven marathon. And I do think there could be something revealing about hearing them all in chronological order. Beethoven travels an astounding distance between his first and last piano sonatas, but he does so at a measured pace, writing a number of pieces in a relatively similar style. One hope is that the different styles will have time to sink in, and that the ground-breaking moments will be more genuinely stunning as a result. Of course, there is the worry of listener fatigue setting in. But for that there is the caffeine fairy…

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