Dominoes and Death

“Even though I’m charging more, I’m earning less each day,” Carlos Duarte repeated to me in one of our interminable rehearsals for a brief tour in 1994. “And I don’t stop playing.” He often took stock of his musical life in Venezuela in those days, in the long decade after his return from studies with important teachers overseas. He landed as pianist with the Maracaibo Symphony in the early ’80s, years of fabulous salaries in dollars with a chauffeur and a country house. Ten years later, he no longer had a chauffeur or a fortune, but he had the most fabulous dynamic extremes I had ever heard on the piano. He played in Japan with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, recitals in North America, unforgettable concerts with Venezuelan orchestras. He delighted Caracas, his beloved city of bounteous nights that always awaited him with triumphal wines after his countless performances.

His implacable musical ethic, his contempt for all things commercial or facile, and his passionate temperament kept him on a sharp edge of artistic excellence that few could understand. He rejected the compromises necessary to ascend to a career where discipline was burdened with politics and madness with politesse. For him there was only discipline and madness – farewell half measures, farewell little smiles. “I like having ugly teeth,” he told me, “so you can see the progress of death in my smile.” This co-existed with a natural tenderness that he hid behind a mask of abysses carved into his face by the constant friction of extremes and danger. I refer to musical danger – the absolute recklessness the pianist reaches onstage when he builds a crescendo whose peak can only mean the physical destruction of the piano; when the slowness of a passage surpasses the lowest vibratory limit of sound and the pianist keeps braking and the watches and hearts of the audience stop; when the speed is so fast that neither the orchestra nor the conductor nor the pianist know how the passage will come to an end. The bulging eyes of Carlos Duarte in those moments of panicked furor were the eyes of monsters in Japanese art. We saw him at the piano like a great forge, hammering his sword on a colossal anvil for a mythological battle that he unfolded before our eyes but in another world. In each work, he exceeded one more limit of sonic power, of extreme slowness or speed, in the most demanding interpretations saturated with feeling, with the precision of a watchmaker.

Those fascinating extremes are not comfortable propositions for the representatives who manage great international careers. Experimentation and radical expression are not marketable – they create anxiety, especially when the artist lives with the same intensity offstage. After his concerts, Carlos celebrated resplendently, but despite his indispensible cargo of wine, his intellectual restlessness never ceased and the great existential questions persisted. For him there were no breaks – when a discussion reached the confines of the absurd, he got out the dominoes: Let’s play! All we have left is the game. This South American rendering of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, staged until dawn with dominoes in place of chess, contained his obsession: the ivory of the keys in the numbered pieces, the endgame countdown before the final measure. Carlos died on April 13, 2003, exactly a year after his voluntary reclusion in a small apartment (facing La Carlota military airport) that he never left.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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