Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gabriela Martinez’ Debut Album with Delos is Delightfully Diverse

Almost two weeks ago Delos released its first album featuring solo performances by Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Martinez. The advance material (reproduced on the Web page) describes her as the “Brilliant young Venezuelan pianist,” which gives me a bit of pause, since my first encounter with her was in July of 2007. The occasion was one of the summer concerts offered by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall, which SFS had designated as “bloggers’ night.” I was just beginning to write seriously about music, and this was an opportunity for not only free admission to an SFS concert but also the circulation of my writing among a new set of readers. The evening included both the concert itself and a question-and-answer session with Martinez after the concert had concluded.

Her selection that night was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 (third) piano concerto in D minor. To put this in historical perspective, the performance took place about ten years after the release of Shine, an account (disputed by some) of David Helfgott’s efforts to learn Opus 30 and the unfortunate aftermath of those efforts. This film was clearly on the mind of many of the bloggers that attended the Q&A session, which is why the question quickly came up as to how much time it had taken Martinez to prepare the concerto. When she replied that it took about two months, one could hear gasps across Davies punctuated by dropping jaws. I ended up writing a piece in which I used a little bit of elementary information theory to make the case that too many minds had been sadly addled by the Shine narrative.

Fortunately, Martinez’ new album is more about the diversity of her music-making skills than it is about debunking fictions fabricated in the name of entertainment. The title of the album is Amplified Soul, which is also the title of one of the tracks, a piece she commissioned from Dan Visconti, which is receiving its recording debut. Just short of five minutes in duration, this is music that appears to explore reverberations within the body of the piano and therefore requires what appears to be some rather detailed attention to which dampers are raised at which times. The title probably refers to the fact that, because the amplitudes of reverberating strings are much lower than those struck by the hammers, amplification is required to appreciate the full effect of the process. While the sorts of effects that Visconti appears to exploit are easily captured in the setting of a recording studio, there are likely to be technical challenges that will arise should Martinez decide to play this piece in recital.

Curiously, similar attention to reverberation also arises in the other recent work on the album, Mason Bates’ “White Lies for Lomax.” “Lomax” is, of course, Alan Lomax, the pioneering ethnomusicologist who devoted so much of his life to collecting and documenting the many different forms of folk music encountered across the continental United States. Bates describes the thematic material as “wisps of distant blues fragments,” adding that these fragments “are hardly honest recreations of the blues.” This explains the “Lies” part of the title. Bates does not say anything (at least in the booklet notes) about the “White” part. While this may have been his way of blunting the significance of his “dishonesty,” it is worth recognizing that Lomax was white, as is Bates, while the blues has its roots among African Americans living in the Deep South, particularly at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, there is some suggestion that Bates acknowledges distorting his source material and may even be calling out some of his predecessors, such as Aaron Copland or even George Gershwin, for doing the same, probably in the interest of appealing to what Amiri Baraka, back when he was writing as LeRoi Jones, called the middle-brow tastes of white critics.

The more traditional works on the album cover the period from the very end of the eighteenth century to the very beginning of the twentieth. The latest of these is Karol Szymanowski’s Opus 3, a set of twelve variations in B-flat minor that he composed for Artur Rubinstein. Somewhat earlier is the first (also in B-flat minor) of the set of six Moments musicaux (Opus 16), which Rachmaninoff composed in 1896. However, the album begins at the opposite extreme with the third (in D major) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 10 sonatas, which he composed in Vienna in 1798 at a time when his reputation was just beginning to rise.

Taken as a whole, this is an album in which each of the compositions has its own distinctive rhetorical stance. Martinez is clearly comfortable with finding and delivering that stance in each of her interpretations. She has definitely come a long way since my first encounter with her almost a decade ago. I might even acknowledge that the use of the adjective “brilliant” in that advance work is justified. However, given my personal sense of my own aging over these last ten years, I have to wonder how much longer she will be presented as “young!”

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