Monday, October 17, 2016

Two New Piano Collective Pianists Explore Composers and their Influences

Yesterday afternoon two of the members of the New Piano Collective returned to Old First Church to present a recital entitled Old Wine in New Bottles for the Old First Concerts series.The performers were Founder and Artistic Director Jeffrey LaDeur and Johnandrew Slominski. The program consisted of four “sets” with Slominski playing the two “middle” sets while LaDeur handled the opening and closing.

In a musical context the phrase “old wine” tends to refer to pre-Classical periods; and those influences definitely figured significantly in the organization of the program. However, Slominski’s second set involved a far more recent influence, while the closing set shifted attention to folk influences. Slominski’s recent influence was Anton Webern, and the composer being influenced by Zygmunt Krauze. Born in 1938, Krauze is a highly prolific Polish composer whose name has yet to register with most American concert-goers with the impact of Witold Lutosławski or Krzysztof Penderecki. Slominski played two short pieces composed in 1958 that Krauze called simply “inventions.” While the title was clearly a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach, Krauze apparently described the pieces as providing a pointillistic foretaste of the music of Anton Webern.

Webern had, of course, died in 1945, over a decade prior to Krauze composing these pieces. However, Krauze’s description may have been his prankish way of reminding his listeners that Webern’s music continued to have limited public appeal, even ten years after his death. (Michael Tilson Thomas has yet to conduct Webern’s Opus 6 orchestra pieces without the Davies audience erupting into a wave of nervous coughs.) Nevertheless, Krauze’s inventions really do provide that foretaste, orienting the attentive listener for the experience of Webern’s Opus 27 “Variations for piano” by offering a “rhetorical preparation” over a shorter duration (yes, it is possible to write pieces shorter than those Webern wrote) and with more transparent counterpoint.

However, Slominski had his own prankishness by not following the Krauze inventions with Webern’s piano piece. Instead, he offered a smooth segue into the four mazurkas in Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 17. Many of the Chopin mazurkas are delightful gems of brevity in which duration never goes beyond a ternary form with two short sections. The mazurka takes a unique approach to triple meter. The late choreographer James Waring used to remind his dancers that, in a Chopin mazurka, the second beat was the important one; and Slominski clearly knew how to present a mazurka as something other than “another kind of waltz.” Perhaps because of that brevity, the shift from Krauze’s atonality to Chopin’s lush harmonies (even on short time scales) turned out to be a smooth one, making for the most imaginative gesture of the program.

LaDeur used his first set to continue with his project to perform all of the piano music by Claude Debussy. His selection was Pour le piano, a suite whose three movements are a prelude, a sarabande, and a toccata. The link to the “old wine” came by first playing the Sarabande movement from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1728 collection Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (new suites of keyboard pieces). However, the Rameau sarabande was coupled with a gavotte for which he had composed six highly virtuoso variations (doubles), a perfect way to prepare the listener for the wealth of thoroughly “pianistic” virtuosity that flows from the pages of Debussy’s suite. The coupling of Debussy to Rameau thus offered both a logical historical transition and an opportunity to take in two highly distinctive approaches to elaborate keyboard writing.

Debussy composed Pour le piano in 1901, and Slominski began the following set with Maurice Ravel’s three-movement sonatina, which he composed between 1903 and 1905. This piece shares much of Debussy’s approach to retrospection, concluding again with a toccata, which is preceded, this time, with a minuet. However, as Slominsky observed in his introductory remarks, Ravel was also interested in an integrated coherence of his three movements, the sort of “bottle” one would never have encountered for any of the eighteenth-century vintages! He also coupled his Ravel with another two Chopin pieces, the Opus 57 berceuse and the Opus 60 barcarolle. Both of these are far simpler in structure but abundantly rich in elaboration, providing a fascinating contrast to Ravel’s more severe approach to structural integrity.

LaDeur concluded the program with music from two consecutive centuries influenced by common folk elements. The folk elements were Hungarian, and the first selection was the third of Franz Liszt’s nineteen “Hungarian Rhapsody” compositions. Liszt did not necessarily appropriate specific folk themes, but this particular rhapsody seems to have been written as a deliberate evocation of the folk instruments. This was followed by Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Marosszék,” which he composed between 1923 and 1927 and then orchestrated in 1929. Here, again, Kodály invented his own “source material” to depict what he described as an “imaginary” time. The Hungarian spirit then spilled over to the encore when Slominski joined LaDeur for the four-hand version of the fifth of the Hungarian dances composed by Johannes Brahms, adding an extra jolt to the vigor of LaDeur’s solo work.

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