Concert Review: 簡韻玲鋼琴獨奏會

or my piano teacher’s graduation recital at 師大

I missed her other recital, and felt terrible about it, but was glad I was able to attend this one.
If you go check out the About Me section, I talk in there about my final decision to go get piano lessons like I’d always wanted, so I did. I was cohost of a radio show for a local news channel at the time, and happened to mention to the host in passing that I’m looking for a piano teacher. Turns out his cousin and her whole family are music people. He put me in touch with his cousin, a music major at a university (with the most esteemed music program in the country, which also happens to be very close to my office) and within a few weeks, I was taking lessons.
I think the total time amounted to around two years, perhaps not quite that. While my progress was still of only the most elementary nature, I absolutely loved it. My teacher was enthusiastic and friendly and excited, has a passion for music and I enjoyed the discussion of music (what I’d listened to or read about recently, what she’d been rehearsing, etc.) as much as the class itself. It honestly, is one of the highlights of my time here and very much a memory I do and will continue to cherish, so first, thank you for taking the time to teach an absolute newbie.
With that said, I slacked off. I have been busy with other things, and haven’t had the time to dedicate to practice to make the lessons worthwhile. She also had the nerve to go study in Germany for a few months (I kid, it seems it was an awesome experience) and will be going again quite soon (congratulations!), but we’ve stayed in touch, and I actually ran into her a few weeks ago at the concert I reviewed here. It was so nice to see her, and at the time, I still wasn’t sure I was able to go, but I made sure I could.
And was I ever glad I attended. In all the time I’ve known her, one thing was quite obvious: our tastes in music are quite different. Hers, it seemed, fall between around 1830-1910 (that’s a strange and vague way to put it, I know), while mine (even more so as of late) fall between 1870-1950. I would come to my lesson and be fascinated by Scriabin or Satie or Ornstein or something (and as of late, Webern and Schoenberg and Babbitt), while I recall her practicing Chopin, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel. Granted, I only listened, I didn’t play, but I also didn’t have performances, recitals, and tests to prepare for.
I mention all of that because I was interested to see what her program for the evening was, and it is below:

I was a little disappointed after I’d arrived that I hadn’t gone and listened to or read about these pieces first. Sometimes I do for concerts, sometimes I don’t, but I was walking into this almost completely blind. The only ones I had listened to before (and again a few days before the recital) were the Liszt etude (my goodness!) and the Appassionata.
My first impression (aside from her stunning appearance walking out into the newly [to me] refinished recital hall at the university) was her focus in the Bach piece. I’d never
known her to play much Bach, aside from some part of one of the suites or something. My second thought, a bit later, was how long this first piece is. The only recording of it (that I am aware) I have is a very old recording of Claudio Arrau, and it comes in at 11 minutes (and with poor audio quality). I don’t know if it seemed longer that evening or if it was just that I expected it to be shorter. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I can’t speak to the details of its performance. What I can say is that this performer, this evening, playing this piece on this piano, seemed intensely focused, and what struck me more than anything was that there was a kind of deep spiritual nature to the music. Aside from the technical aspect of the speed of notes, trills, and other things sounding (to me) super on point, it gave me the feeling that has lately driven me to listen to more and more Bach: a sense of genius, of depth that kind of commands awe and respect and thought.
The second piece was what struck me as a surprisingly large Mozart piano sonata. While only in three movements, it’s quite a hefty piece. Written in 1775 for an amateur keyboardist and bassoonist who apparently couldn’t pay for the work, the three movements have quite a lot of content. The contrast between the Bach piece and this one are quite evident, and it played out well as part of the program. While the Bach piece struck me as all those things (perhaps somewhat cliche-ish-ly) a Bach piece is, the Mozart is more outgoing, playful, and demands a kind of interpretation and energy very different from the Bach. I never recall her speaking of performing or rehearsing Mozart, so I was (as well as for some other reasons) quite interested as to how this piece made it onto the program. Its scope (the Rondeau en polonaise of the second movement and Tema con variazione in the third make for a hell of a lot of material to feel and interpret) makes it seem somewhat daunting, but I was really impressed with her focus throughout the entire piece. There wasn’t a single passage or moment that didn’t get the attention or passion it deserved, either technically or emotionally. There was no ‘throwaway’ section or any lack of concentration given to any part of the piece, which in itself is impressive.
The impression I got, however, after these first two pieces, was almost shockingly different with the next piece. Having said all that bit earlier about my recent preference for far more modern styles and eras of music, the previous half-hour of Bach and Mozart was, while musically delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, is also only recently the type of music I’m starting to appreciate more. I would have described it in the past as ‘not up my alley.’ So when it came time for the Liszt etude, I was excited. I also felt that this is something I supposed the pianist would be more… passionate or connected to, and my god was she. The contrast between the pieces was great, but after the Baroque and Classical eras, this felt like the devil’s music. I’d heard the piece before, but it made an impression this time. It’s one of only two of the twelve that didn’t get some kind of moniker or nickname, but it certainly has a ton of personality. I watched a video of Boris Berezovsky playing this piece, and he is so violent and sweaty in the performance it’s almost off putting. That’s not negative; he’s a super intense performer, but the thing about this piece that was so impressive was a tiny, very beautiful young woman completely at the helm of the piano giving an incredibly convincing performance of this transcendental Liszt etude. It was no less than breathtaking. I was so impressed. Needless to say, rapturous applause after she finished. And thankfully, the intermission after that. Even I was tired.
I didn’t leave my seat for the duration of the intermission. I was sitting next to the only other person I knew in the hall, my composition major friend, with whom I very much enjoy speaking. After 15 or 20 minutes, the audience and the lights settled down and the second half was to begin.
First was the Appassionata, a piece with which I am vaguely familiar, but one which even a vague familiarity is enough to endear its listeners to. From the first notes, it is captivating, and captivated I was. The piece has a certain outward emotional expression, balanced by a touching, even mesmerizing reservedness, and from the get-go, it all came through. I thought just for a moment, I might be brought to tears during this piece, but I kept it together. Goosebumps, however, were had. It was fantastic, and my first thought after she played the final note was ‘I bet she’s glad that’s done.’ I may have even said it. The Beethoven piece struck me as the one that is perhaps the most well known. It has a reputation, and it’s an ambitious pick for a recital, I felt, but she did a splendid job.

Lastly, there’s Debussy. I heard her play this piece after she’d learned it in like a week or two back in 2013 (I believe, over Chinese New Year). It filled the same shoes that the Liszt piece wore in the first half of the program: the piece that felt far less like homework and far more like a piece the pianist herself would learn solely out of interest and passion. And it sounded that way too. I still have on my iPad (both of them, actually) the entire performance of this piece when she played it in one of the recital rooms two years ago (almost exactly). Needless to say, it was much improved (although that’s not to say that I wasn’t impressed having heard her play it the first time; I’d give my big toe to play like she does or did). It’s also a fantastic piece for the end of a program. It’s lively, fun, and technically demanding, and I watched a few young girls on the other side of the hall (sitting opposite me, where they could see her hands but not her face) bouncing and laughing and being surprised and generally pleased at the playful, colorful, and fun nature of the piece, which gives credit not only to the composer, but the pianist.
There was long applause after she’d finished and walked off ‘stage.’ Applause continued, but no pianist appeared. When the door reopened, it was not the pianist, but another pianist (who filled in and taught one of my lessons once) bringing out a piano bench. She disappeared and returned with another, then music stands, then the piano’s music stand, and then there appeared our pianist with a clarinetist and cellist, all in their graduation gowns, for the performance of a delightful trio as an encore. After some shuffling of benches and stands and a strap and tuning, we got to enjoy a trio (still not sure which), and it was a testament not only to good music, but camaraderie, friendship, and all things good about music.
Once the program was over, I passively waited my turn for a photo with the pianist, and felt, strangely, proud. Of all the people there, I knew her probably the least, and was far more an ‘outsider’ to the occasion than many of her fellow students or family, but felt privileged to be in attendance.
As a side note, it was the first time I have felt a personal connection to a performer at a concert or recital. I was nervous waiting for the program to begin, and I wasn’t sure why. I guess part of it is that connection that we don’t always see between personal and professional lives.
As a kid in grade school, did you ever run into one of your teachers on the weekend or see them at some other public place in civilian attire? I have, and it was like, somehow the first time I’d thought of them as people rather than teachers. We only see one side of them, and especially as kids, don’t think of them as functioning humans with children, husbands or wives, and homes, people who have to eat and sleep like everyone else.
It was the first time I’d had that much insight (albeit only a very little) into the life  of a performer, making time for practice, polishing up the piece, meeting family and friends after, all that behind the scenes stuff, not just a pretty face that can play music, and that made it that much more impressive.
What an accomplishment, at her age, as a young student to have just pulled off a performance like she did of quite a bulky program. I was so impressed.
I told someone, I can’t remember who, of the night that had it been a professional musician, someone from abroad who came to the big fancy concert hall down the road, I’d have been pleased, but coming from someone who hasn’t had years or decades of performance experience, it was truly magnificent.
I can’t wait for the next one!

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