If you haven’t noticed, it’s that time of year. Lots of graduation recitals and concerts and things. It’s a great time of year to be a concertgoer, and I’m sure many students heave huge sighs of relief once their performances are over. It is also often hardly the end, but a beginning of more, better things.
I’ve talked before about my thoughts about concerts and recitals and performances in an academic setting. There are two main ones, the first being that the people in the room (at the university where these recitals are [most often] held) are the real professionals (or will be). I’m an amateur; I study scores and theory books and do some composing in my spare time (a little every day), but these are the real devoted people. That is to say I feel more amateur.
More importantly, it’s that these are also the people who are at the beginning of their careers, who will go on to do and be great things for decades to come, be it performance or conducting or composing. I’m always interested to read about composers’ histories and who was whose teacher and how someone ended up where and how they are in their careers, and in these cases, we are seeing that happen.
I attended this recital (Friday, May 8) at the suggestion of my friend, a fellow student of Miss Chen, the performer. My friend’s note was to the effect that “oh, by the way, there’s a recital tonight, and Scrabin’s fifth sonata is on the program.” That was enough. I went.
I got there a bit later than I wanted to, and all the ‘good’ seats were taken (the ones close up or at a good angle to see the pianist’s hands.)
I didn’t have an awful seat, but at first, I didn’t have a seat at all. A very nicely dressed woman gestured for me to sit down, but I wasn’t going to take a seat when she and her daughter were
going to stand. More stools were brought out, so we could all sit down, so I did.
The program began shortly after I was seated, and Bach started. It was from The Art of Fugue, and it wasn’t a terribly long piece, but it was crisp, clear, and clean. I know very little of the Bach, but the pause at the end I expected to be pregnant with another section to come. It was not, and there was a slightly awkward delay before the first clap was heard. She played it very well. Standing up to take a bow, she immediately sat down to begin the Beethoven.
While it’s perhaps not as famous as Waldstein or the Appassionnata (maybe?) Beethoven’s op. 81a, Les Adieux, is a challenging work, and one at an important point in his career. I did some reading on it before the concert, but had only heard it maybe a few times (maybe…) before that evening. It was a dedicated performance, one that, although not familiar with the piece, I was able to understand and appreciate. It seemed a mature work, one both difficult to realize both technically and interpretively.
One of the highlights of the evening, however, was the Liszt ballade (no. 2 in Bm). Somehow in all my time, I have never heard this piece. The first person I think of when I think ‘ballade’ is of course Chopin, and his ballades are all (purported to be) based on actual narratives, but honestly, they’re perfectly, wonderfully deliciously enjoyable and magnificent without any knowledge of their narratives. This ballade, however, seems to have a very close relationship with its story. Just check out its brief Wikipedia article, where it describes the story Lenore as a
“wild hundred-mile midnight ride with the zombie of her recently slain soldier-fiancé, toward a cemetery where their nuptials are solemnized amid a riotous gathering of skeletons and specters.”
Leave it to Liszt to pick such a romantic subject matter for his ballade. But it does play like one of his one-movement tone poems, and the performance that evening was equally intense. It was passionate, focused, and breathtakingly virtuosic. It seemed to be, at least for the first half of the program (if not of the evening) one of the most confidently-performed pieces of the program, and a very strong way to end the first half of the evening. I was very impressed. Very.
The intermission was fifteen minutes, and the lights go back down, and we prepare for a somewhat lighter second half of the evening. Four pieces, smaller and less… heavy than the prior half.
First is Chopin’s nocturne, op. 62 no 2. I prefer his early nocturnes, the op. nines especially, but this was a convincing performance, very Chopin-esque. I was looking more forward to the Debussy, a piece I’d heard in this same hall only a few weeks before.
It was played incredibly smoothly. It made me want to look at the score (which I still haven’t done) because I’m just curious what it’s marked and what the intended effect is. It reminds me a bit of the same waterlike effect in some of Ravel’s pieces, like Jeaux d’eau or Gaspard’s first movement Ondine. In any case, maybe it isn’t a ‘water piece’ but certainly felt like it. It was smooth and flowing and connected, and there was never an ounce of hesitation throughout the whole piece. Very nice.
I was excited to hear the Kapustin piece. I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t like jazz. Benny Goodman, I can take, along with George Gershwin. Anything of the Big Band or Swing eras I’m fine with, but no jazz club live-band jazz, please. That being said, a Russian composer interested in jazz interested me, but I’d still never heard any of his works. The piece was fascinating. From the moment it began, I felt like everyone should get up and begin walking around, as if the auditorium had suddenly turned into a large ballroom, a fancy black tie affair from 90 years ago with vested waiters carrying hors d’oeuvres (if only everyone had been better dressed). It was slick and smooth and jazzy, but in a very classical, almost Chopin etude kind of way. I wouldn’t have picked, at first listen, that it was from a Russian composer. The piece was very clearly a set of variations, with its clearly presented theme at the beginning and a very enjoyable set of richly colorful and seemingly technically demanding variations. It was really a joy to hear live. A treat.
The last piece then, the real treasure, what I’d been looking forward to all along, was finally hear. It’s a great, exciting way to end a recital, but also a challenge after having played everything else.
This is at least the third, perhaps fourth time I’ve heard this piece performed live in the last year or so, and it was one of the better performances. May there have been some wrong notes? Yes (but only maybe; I can’t be sure. There are a lot of notes). What there was not was the seemingly compelling desire to overdo this piece. It IS ALREADY so full of emotion and contrast and passion and life; don’t botch it by overdramatizing it. And Miss Chen did not do that. While there were some sections, small lines or passages that I felt could have been given some more time, a bit more room to breathe, overall, the piece (again, an extremely challenging one) was focused, balanced and intense. It was impressive to see such a young (and tiny) lady really put all her effort into a piece like this. She put her all into it, and the piece demands it. One of the greatest (Russian) pianists of the 20th century claimed Scriabin’s fifth to be the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertory, according to the above Wikipedia article. An ambitious choice, and an inspiring one.
It also turns out the very nicely dressed woman who offered me a seat is the pianist’s mother. I watched her briefly during the performance; she was intently focused, silently cheering with intensely watchful eyes. I knew she must have been a mother or a teacher. She exuded pride.
I know a lot of these concerts, at the end, boil down to homework, and even when they don’t boil down to homework, in the professional world, they’ll boil down to ticket sales and seats filled. So it’s nice, especially in an academic environment (in Asia, especially) to see a few more adventurous program choices, and not just for the sake of being different.
A few weeks ago, I asked my piano teacher (also a student at the same university) about some of her choices for her piano recital, and she said they were discoveries of hers and she was blown away by hearing them live, and wanted to play them. I’m not a pianist, but I feel like it will show if a pianist (or any performer) isn’t passionate about what they’re performing. I won’t discredit anyone for not being interested in Boulez or Barraqué or Stockhausen or whoever else you want to think of, but I think it’s perfectly fair to be critical of picking something you’re not passionate in (unless it’s homework…) Great performance, and keep up the good work!