“I became obsessed with her playing, her strange posture, the clothes she wore…” Sein’s voice trailed off, like fog dissipating at dawn, as I drifted into the small well reserved in my mind for pianist Martha Argerich.
Argerich is peculiar. The only thing the world knows for sure is that we know nothing about her. She eschews time-space; tracking her down for even a five-minute phone interview is a herculean task; expecting her to follow through with engagements is almost comical–Argerich cancelled as many concerts as she played last year. Her physical persona, too, creates an aura of being shrouded in mystery: a cobweb mane of silver hair, once an inky, fathomless black; dark skirts that billow like fumes when she walks, or when she thunders away at the keys. She is perhaps the only figure in the world that is so notoriously beloved yet so notoriously inscrutable. (When former President Obama conferred her Kennedy Center Honor last winter, he pronounced her name wrong. Twice.)
Last summer, my piano teacher gifted me a ticket to hear Martha Argerich on her 75th birthday in Berlin, for my twentieth birthday. (The tradition continues. With Argerich’s return to Carnegie after an 8-year hiatus the day after my twenty-first, preparations–including a group invoice, 25 invitations, and celebratory necessities–are underway. Let’s hope she doesn’t cancel this one.) After stumbling off an overnight bus from Paris, I groggily adjusted my pupils to blazing sunlight and my tastebuds to deliciously strange quark on Potsdamer Platz. I wondered what Argerich, rehearsing just a few blocks away at the Philharmonie, could be thinking. She likely wished for nothing more than to disappear today, on her 75th birthday, when 2,000 adoring strangers with endless bouquets would clamor to touch and photograph every inch of her.
The Philharmonie, a delightful hodgepodge of modernist geometry and futuristic orbs dangling strategically from its ceilings, featured scattered “Happy Birthday” cards throughout the hall for the audience to scribble on. “Dear Madame Argerich–” I began, feeling the weight of the pen between my fingers. “On your 75th birthday, I wish you only infinite amounts of what you have so generously given the world: artistry, grace, passion, humanity, and deep reverence for the power of music.” An overly-excited middle-aged man (“I came all the way from Poland for this!”) and I begged the front desk for a concert poster, and, after much side-eye and grumbling in German, we were granted two glossy, full-size, glorious canvases of Argerich.
From the moment she walked onstage, a collective hush descended upon the hall, like the air itself was coagulating in astonishment. The first thing that struck me was her stature: much frailer than I assumed from the force with which she approaches her instrument. The second thing was the effort, the purpose and might, it took to cross the stage, hand-in-hand with maestro Daniel Barenboim, and how miraculously quickly such effort disappeared at the piano bench. I could feel her anxiety melt into pools of contentment, the comfort of being enrobed by freshly-blown bedsheets at day’s end. She encompassed every facet, crevice, and fold of the human experience; a single note held pain and joy, sorrow and regret, triumph, nostalgia. The applause raged with the strength of a torrential downpour; the cries for “encore!” stretched on.
Despite my attempts, I can’t tell you exactly what happened at this concert. It is one of those memories that belong strictly to the caves of emotion, where the physical details are inconsequential next to the extraordinarily moving experience of witnessing Martha Argerich play piano. She somehow extracts every bit of you, the listener, and displays you within her music with neon-bright clarity.
In this way, she is what every musician so wishes to be, yet knows he or she is so maddeningly not, which renders her the single most inspiring figure there is. At least for me. She’s made cameos in my college essays, my most recent fellowship essay, in journal entries, in iMessage bubbles, on Spotify, in papers, and in some vividly impossible dreams.
A cheery cackle jolted me back to our interview. Sein was still talking about Janine Jansen. I thought I caught a glimpse of silver thread as I pulled myself back to the surface, Martha Argerich still tinkering away at Beethoven in the margins of my ears.