Heinz Hall Memories: at the Pittsburgh Symphony, being shocked out of my mind upon experiencing Prokofiev's second piano concerto for the first time; also, a note on human memory

Last month, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on its blog called for people to share their Heinz Hall memories for the 40th anniversary celebration. Upon reading that, two memories immediately came to my mind. I describe one of them here.

Prokofiev’s second piano concerto

I was in Heinz Hall for the Pittsburgh Symphony on January 21, 2000. It was a dreary winter day, with snow and poor driving conditions, but I felt compelled to use my ticket and go downtown for the concert.

On the program at the concert were Prokofiev’s second piano concerto and Bruckner’s fourth symphony. The Prokofiev was played by Mikhail Rudy.

What I remember is my jaw dropping while Rudy played the first movement of the Prokofiev concerto. I had never heard this concerto before; I had listened to the first, third, and fifth concertos many times before on cassette tape as well as CD but I had never owned a recording of the second or fourth!

This concerto was really dark and virtuosic, with violent dissonances and runs, quite unlike the more widely known concertos. When the solo cadenza began, I got restless and astounded as the cadenza kept going and going, as though taking up half of the entire first movement. This seemed outrageously long, and the music just got wilder and I thought the piano was taking a real beating, but I was truly fascinated by the perverseness of Prokofiev’s conception.

When the whole concert ended, I walked out in a daze (in fact, I was so mentally disrupted that I was lucky to make it home alive driving on the parkway under really bad winter conditions).

I will always remember that visceral experience with the Prokofiev concerto, and every time I hear it now, I can imagine myself back in Heinz Hall experiencing it for the very first time.

An example of the fragility of memory

A confession: I had to look up my email archive and my journal to get my story completely correct above, after the first draft that I wrote without consulting them.

I am always a little suspicious when people tell of their memories from long ago (or even not so long ago), because human memory is not like computer memory. Human memory involves re-creation and simply cannot be trusted without hard evidence.

For example, my immediate “memory” of the concert I just described, when I was not relying on any external sources, was false in several ways. I was lucky to be able to locate old email archives and my daily journal from twelve years ago in order to determine what really happened!

The friend who wasn’t there (part 1)

First of all, I was very confident that I had gone to a concert with a particular friend, and that we had looked at each other in amazement during the cadenza. It turns out that I had not gone to this concert with my friend, and I had driven to it alone! It was easy for me to confabulate because back in around 1997-1999, I had in fact gone to many PSO concerts in Heinz Hall on Fridays with him.

Furthermore, I did correctly remember discussing my experience with him. It turns out that I reported back to him about the Prokofiev concerto, and we talked about it, and in fact, he lent me a CD of it to listen to as a result.

(Note: please read part 2 of “the friend who wasn’t there” below.)

The wrong pianist

In my struggle to remember, I had thought that the pianist was probably Yefim Bronfman. I was not actually confident about this, however. I was right not to be confident, because in fact, it was Mikhail Rudy.

I have an explanation for this mistake. It turns out that the CD I borrowed from my friend was Bronfman playing the concerto, and according to my journal, I listened to this CD on February 4, 2000!

Furthermore, I did correctly remember seeing Bronfman playing in Heinz Hall. Again, my journal shows that on May 12, 2000, the final concert of the season, Yefim Bronfman played Beethoven under Mariss Jansons, and I was very impressed with the concert:

I actually stood up to applaud Bronfman and Jansons for the Beethoven and the Stravinsky, something I have never done at a PSO concert. It was a special concert. Jansons seemed inspired, possibly because it was the season finale and the place was packed? I mean, I'm not a Stravinsky fan, but the Stravinsky was just so well played. The Beethoven was fantastic. I thought I'd be all jaded from knowing this concerto inside out since first listening to it in 1988, but the performance was amazing. The whole piece was great, but especially the first movement, in which Bronfman and Jansons and the orchestra were like one mind, the interplay seamless. One thing about Bronfman: he had a lot of energy, but seemed kind of percussive or heavy sometimes. A minor complaint about a pianist who seemed great from the performance I saw.

The correctness of memory

My reaction

My journal entry for the day of the concert included this comment I jotted down into my Palm PDA at intermission:

Intermission. There was an encore by Mikhail Rudy. The Prokofiev piano concerto no. 2 is the most bizarre piano concerto I've ever heard. Quite perverse. The clashing harmonies are one thing, but the organization is another. Long, extended solo passages. Huge cadenza in the first movement. Just freakish. I will have to look it up on the Web.

I think I fairly accurately remembered my impression of the music that I wrote at the beginning of this post before I consulted my journal entry.

My friend who was there (part 2)

After writing a draft of this blog post, I told my friend about my false memory, but he replied that he too remembers the concert!! He just doesn’t remember going to it with me. This is quite possible. By 2000, because of other social circles and logistics, we did not always go to the concerts together, even if we both did end up there, sitting in different places.

He remembers this concert being eye-opening also, in that although he had listened to the concerto on recordings (as I mentioned, he lent me one shortly after this concert), it had not connected with him deeply until the live concert.

So it appears that my memory was partially correct: although we had not sat together at the concert, most likely we chatted during intermission and shared our amazement then.


The exercise of trying to get accurate the details of a memorable Heinz Hall experience from twelve years ago turned into a fascinating exploration of the malleability of human memory.

But even if some details were fuzzy, my falling in love with Prokofiev’s wayward second piano concerto remains an eternal truth.

Bonus video

So I’ve never seen Yefim Bronfman playing Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, but YouTube comes to the rescue. If you want to check out the wild cadenza I mentioned, it occurs between 5:00 and 9:19 in this video:

(Update of 2013-11-08)

I happened to see on the PSO blog a post about someone else’s experience with a recent performance of this concerto with the PSO!

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