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Krystian Zimerman (Middlebury College)

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman stunned his Los Angeles audience Sunday evening (26 April 2009) when he announced that he would no longer perform in the US.

According to this piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, this is the second time Zimerman has renounced performing in our nation. In 2006 he vowed not to play another US recital until then-president George W Bush had left office. This time he expressed his opposition to the current administration’s plan to construct a missile defense station in his native land.

Audience members reacted predictably. Some walked out, some booed, some applauded. That’s interesting but academic: Zimerman is welcome to express his opinion in this way — or any other he chooses. That freedom is one of the great strengths of our nation.

What I find unsettling is some of the history behind Zimerman’s earlier performances in the US, as revealed in this article.

In 2001, security officials at JFK Airport confiscated and destroyed Zimerman’s Steinway piano. The officers reportedly thought the piano’s glue "smelled funny" and might be explosive.

In 2006, airport security again held up his instrument. This time they returned it to him, but five days later — too late for him to adjust it to his satisfaction in time for his concert.

I realize that airport security officials have a job to do. I don’t know whether they may have later issued an apology and financial compensation for the destroyed piano (a new customized Steinway grand can easily run into six figures). Regardless, I can hardly comprehend such an action. Did they not know who Zimerman was? Did they not know the value of his instrument, not just in dollars but in musical terms? What on earth were they thinking?

That Zimerman even returned to our country at all after such a heartbreaking experience is almost unimaginable. Would you? And with such a background it’s not at all difficult to imagine that a point of political disagreement could easily become a reason to never set foot in the US again.

Let’s hope the situation changes. Zimerman is a powerful and compelling musical presence, and his absence from these shores will be both our loss and Zimerman’s.

Further reading:

Polish pianist stops show in The Guardian

Krystian Zimerman’s controversial appearance in the LA Times

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