Of all the works in the classical piano repertory, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 has perhaps one of the most fearsome reputations: it is a work of cruel and unusual technical difficulty, requiring the pianist to play more notes per minute than any other work in the canon. Joseph Hofmann, the virtuoso for whom the work was composed, eschewed all public performances, claiming the work was too difficult even for him. The 1997 movie Shine - a biographical treatment of pianist David Helfgott's struggle to master the work and the concurrent collapse of his mental health- elevated the so-called "Rach 3" to iconic status in the popular imagination as one of the most difficult- even dangerous- pieces of music ever written.
So: what might be the result is a group of non-pianists, former pianists, failed pianists, and traumatised former child prodigies were challenged to play it publicly? what if these pianists were not permitted to practice or even study the music before their recital, but required to play entirely from sight?
In this 12 hour durational work, the artist is joined on-stage by a relay of 5 other "failed" classical pianists. Each playing solo to a dark, empty concert hall, the undertake a collective endeavour of sight-reading the entire notorious concerto. Familiar cadences and refrains rise temporarily into recognition before collapsing, surging, scattering into a sonorous mass of notes. Each pianist brings their history on stage with them into a direct, extemporaneous encounter with the fiendishly difficult score. In the space of liberation that is allowed by the proposition of failure as a foregone conclusion, the pianists perform their revenge on Rachmaninoff.
A challenge to the fetishism of mastery, and to the heroic discourse of artistic vituosity, Norman proposes the question: in a culture driven, at every level, buy the self-devouring persuit of success, how might we make a space to contemplate the the beauty, the humanity and the transformative potential of failure? If our regrets, our losses, and our unfulfilled expectations could be set to music, what might they sound like?
Immediately on arrival, I realised what a mistake it had been to assume I could see other shows around this performance. Next Wave 2014 is for me marked by regret at not having spent 12 hours in Melba Hall....Concerto No. 3 was like watching an extreme sport in which all our anxieties were realised: like seeing a tightrope walker endlessly fall and climb back up, or a high-jumper repeatedly dislodge the bar—and, say, break an arm. The intense focus and effort of pianists struggling through “Rach 3” put this performance on a par with some of the most involved dance improvisation pieces I have seen.
Jana Perkovic, Realtime.