Have piano, will walk

For those who hoped that America’s standing in the world would immediately rebound when the Bush administration rode into the sunset, Sunday night’s furor at Disney Hall must have been a disappointment. After playing a Bach partita and Beethoven’s last piano sonata, followed by a riveting Polish nationalist sonata, the pianist Krystian Zimerman announced that he would no longer play in the U.S. because of its objectionable military policies overseas.

In his soft-spoken but apparently angry comments, the 52-year-old Pole, widely regarded as one of our era’s greatest pianists, attacked the U.S. military for seeking to “control the world.” He made reference to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, and then called on the United States to “get your hands off my country.”

The reaction was instantaneous. About 40 people stood up and walked out. Others booed (while still others applauded). After The Times posted the story on its website, hundreds of comments appeared, veering toward the negative. One read: “Go Zimerman, and take the Dixie Chicks with you.” Another suggested that Zimerman should “do what any good pianist would do: Shut up and play.”

But Zimerman’s entrance into the political fray was hardly unique. Consider his countryman, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the pianist and composer who became so involved in Polish politics that he was elected prime minister in 1919. Or composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who refused to accept an award at the White House from President George H.W. Bush in 1989.


Many commenters at seemed to think that Zimerman should have expressed gratitude that the U.S. “rescued” his nation from Soviet domination. But Zimerman no doubt had more recent events on his mind. The U.S. has said it will base interceptor missiles in Poland as part of its controversial missile defense plan. And in recent years, the CIA is believed to have operated one of its “black site” secret prisons in Poland.

Apparently, the Obama election will not instantly rehabilitate the U.S. “A lot of people think that when they choose the next president, suddenly everything will be forgotten,” Zimerman said last year. “I think that when the damage is done, first you have to undo the damage.” You don’t have to accept all his criticisms to recognize that he speaks for many around the world.

Zimerman had a stage, and he used it. Those who objected and voted with their feet have every right to boycott his music. May such debates always be with us. Meanwhile, it’s sad that his artistry will not be heard in the U.S.