The title of the second “inaugural concert” of the New Piano Collective, given yesterday afternoon in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, was Black and White Magic. Since Founder and Artistic Director Jeffrey LaDeur offered up a deft exercise in deconstruction to link the music of Claude Debussy to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux, it is tempting to take a similar approach to the title for the entire event. Over the course of the program, at least two different “readings” of “Magic” were explored. The one that was most explicitly acknowledged was that of illusion; and the title of the final selection on the program was Piano Illusions, involving an ambitious effort to interleave piano performance with magic acts. However, for those who try to take their Harry Potter books too seriously (not to mention Lev Grossman’s more adult The Magicians, which has been adapted for television broadcast on Syfy) magic involves the transcendence of physical reality. In this latter reading the adjectives “black” and “white” tend to refer to the nature of that transcendence or the intentions behind it, which can be either malicious or beneficent. Presumably this was the distinction that motivated Alexander Scriabin to give the names “Black Mass” and “White Mass” to two of his sonatas. On the other hand the adjectives are also simply the colors of the keys on a piano keyboard, with no contingent implications for either good or ill!
Piano Illusions is actually the title of a full-length program conceived by Igor Lipinski (making his San Francisco debut) in which he synthesizes a classical piano recital with a series of acts in the arts of illusion (i.e. a magic show). Yesterday afternoon Lipinski concluded the program with three such acts entitled “Card fugue,” “Tempo rubato,” and “Piano variations,” respectively. The first of these worked a rather standard trick of identifying all the cards in a shuffled deck with the fugue movement that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 914 keyboard toccata in E minor. The second involved an imagined visit to Buenos Aires as an excuse to play an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Milonga del Angel.” Finally, “Piano variations” involved a “transformation trick,” turning the variations in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 rhapsody based on Niccolò Paganini’s 24th violin caprice into the final (“Turkish March”) movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 piano sonata in A major.
All this was clever enough, but it overstayed its welcome. Ultimately, the music got in the way of the magic; and the magic got in the way of the music. Lipinski was clearly impressed enough with how Victor Borge could turn a “serious” piano recital into a night club act to write a doctoral dissertation entitled From Liszt to Victor Borge: A Legacy of Unique Piano Performances. However, when it comes to turning theory into practice, Lipinski has not yet nailed down the timing; and this was particularly evident when he based his encore on Borge playing Frédéric Chopin’s “Minute” waltz (Opus 64, Number 1 in D-flat major) while blindfolded. Lipinski’s keyboard technique may have been up to snuff, but he still needs a lot of work on his verbal and physical delivery.
Far more interesting was LaDeur’s transformation trick involving Rameau and Debussy. As was recently reported, LaDeur is currently preparing all of Debussy’s piano works for performance in time for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death on March 25, 2018. Yesterday’s contribution to that effort was the first book of three pieces that Debussy titled Images. LaDeur’s “trick,” so to speak, was to make the case that these three pieces were not only a unified whole but an encapsulated summary of the plot for Rameau’s Castor et Pollux opera. “Reflets dans l’eau” (reflections in the water) introduces the two twins, one mortal and the other immortal (presumably the less “embodied” reflection of physicality). “Hommage à Rameau” then deals with the death of the mortal Castor and his descent to the Underworld, while the joyous concluding “Mouvement” depicts Jupiter elevating the two of them to the stars in the sky in the form of the Gemini constellation.
LaDeur provided context for his argument by first playing his own transcription of “Tristes apprêts, pâles ambeaux” (mournful solemnities, pale torches), Telaira’s aria upon leaning of the death of Castor, from Rameau’s opera score. Furthermore, he made the transition from Rameau to Debussy without interruption, thus providing no time for disruptive applause. However, this had a curious effect on the entire set. Rameau’s arias are almost always tightly compact in their brevity; and “Tristes apprêts” is a perfect example of this technique. As a result, the three Debussy pieces, which would not be taken as long by just about any other standard, came across as unduly lengthy. Thus, while one could appreciate the impressive intellectual grounds behind LaDeur’s presentation, the visceral impact of Rameau, Debussy, and the relationship between them never quite registered.
Nevertheless, the idea of conjoining shorter selections was a good one; and it was also taken up in the first half of the program by Paul Sánchez (also making his San Francisco debut) and Jiyang Chen. Sánchez began the program with that more transcendent reading of the noun “magic.” He began with Federico Mompou’s Cants magics (magic songs), a suite of short movements, each almost haiku-like in its brevity but each basically a distillation of two contrasting perspectives. Sánchez quoted Stephen Hough calling Mompou’s work “music of evaporation;” but, in terms of connotations of that noun “magic,” the evaporation amounts to a detachment from all impediments of physical reality. These were followed, without interruption, by a transition to Franz Liszt’s second Ballade in B minor, whose own transcendence involved rising above the restrictive limitations of the piano itself with little regard to the mortal coils of either space or time.
Chen’s portion of the program consisted of six transcriptions covering traditional Chinese music, songs by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Mompou, chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and an except from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet The Nutcracker. The Chinese transcription was by Chen Pei-Xun. Those of the songs were by Arcadi Volodos, except for the Rachmaninoff song, which was transcribed by Jiyang Chen himself. The Nutcracker transcription was the work of Mikhail Pletnev. Several of these ventured into the more innovative realm of paraphrase, but Volodos’ approach to Mompou captured the same sort of crystalline brevity that Sánchez had brought to his reading of Cants magics.
The Nutcracker excerpt was particularly impressive. Tchaikovsky pulled out all of the stops of his instrumental resources (so to speak) for the pas de deux near the end of the ballet; however, as a conductor, Pletnev has acquired considerable expertise in grasping Tchaikovsky’s command of those instrumental resources. All of that expertise translated impressively into his transcription, creating the “illusion” that more than one performer was involved with a truly “transcendental” effect. All of the semantic baggage of “magic” was assembled in a single “package” in this impressive transcription that concluded Chen’s set.