Saturday, August 13, 2016

The New Piano Collective Launches with Virtuosity on (over?) the Brink of Madness

Last night in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, the New Piano Collective, founded by Artistic Director Jeffrey LaDeur, gave its very first recital. This included San Francisco debut performances by two of the pianists in the group, Johnandrew Slominski and Bobby Mitchell. The third to play last night, Owen Zhou, had previously performed in the series of Old First concerts organized around the solo piano music of Alexander Scriabin.

Writing about the group in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman observed that “pianists tend to be loners, at least when it comes to their own kind.” Picking up on this observation, LaDeur observed that the Collective provided an opportunity for the member pianists to be more aware of what their colleagues were doing. The opportunity for “traveling in a pack” (the key phrase in Kosman’s headline) could thus be seen as a motivation for “knowledge sharing,” allowing each pianist to expand his personal horizons. Many jazz lovers were able to witness and enjoy the fruits of such gatherings following the Second World War through the concerts in the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) series, followed in the Fifties by the Newport Jazz Festival. The magnitude of the New Piano Collective is far more modest (LaDeur and six of his fellow alumni from the Eastman School of Music); but the spirit is very much the same.

The one risk in this grand design is that the line between “sharing” and “competing” tends to be a thin one. JATP participants may have been eager to listen to each other, but they also took pleasure in trying to outdo each other. There was some suggestion of similar competition last night, because all three of the pianists chose to haul out compositions best known for the high (extreme?) levels of virtuoso demands. The entire program was framed by Slominski playing Franz Schubert’s D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasy in C major at the beginning and Mitchell filling the entire second half of the program with Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasy, which also happens to be in C major. Between these two nineteenth-century monuments, Zhou performed George Tsontakis’ 1991 “Ghost Variations,” which might be taken as a prime example of virtuosity in the age of pharmacological steroids.

What was most striking about the program, however, was that it was unified by the proposition that all of that virtuosity, regardless of the form it took, served to connote the nightmarish conditions of a fragile mental state. Schubert himself could not play D. 760 and is said to have remarked that only the Devil could play it. Schumann, of course, frequently drew inspiration from his own bipolar tendencies; but in Opus 17 Florestan is running rampant with little hope of Eusebius ever restraining him. Finally, Tsontakis’ “ghost” is that of Mozart playing a movement from one of his piano concertos; but the overall “spirit” (so to speak) of “Ghost Variations” seems to have been inspired by Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist (or at least Linda Blair’s depiction of her).

This “shared stance” of approaching (or crossing) the brink of madness made for a series of performances that were as disquieting as they were awe-inspiring. If expressiveness pushed beyond the usual more conventional approaches to “decoding the marks on paper,” the results simply involved a search for new rhetorical devices that would not compromise the underlying logic of the respective composers. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of the collective approach that LaDeur has envisaged. The selections by Schubert and Schumann are played in recital and recorded with such frequency that even those unfamiliar with notational details are likely to recognize them from the very first gestures. When music is performed that frequently, the burning question involves whether anything more needs to be said through them.

The major challenge in performing music is to make a solid case that an affirmative answer can always be given to that question. Mind you, there are (and will be) many times when “more” does not necessarily translate to “better.” Nevertheless, every piece of music is embedded in a never-ending flow of history; and, as history changes context, so too will approaches to performing change. Perhaps the almost violent boldness of Tsontakis’ rhetoric was a motivating force behind how Slominski and Mitchell chose to approach Schubert and Schumann, respectively. Last night the overall results were truly ear-opening, so to speak; and this may be a sign that LaDeur’s idea of a collective approach is on to something that definitely deserves further attention.

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