Monday, August 28, 2017

A Disappointing Piano Festival Conclusion

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco International Piano Festival concluded in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The title of the program was Looking Back, Looking Forward. It allowed for a variety of interpretations, which were not always satisfying, although some were certainly thought-provoking.

Consider the opening set, which was the San Francisco debut of pianist Albert Kim. This involved coupling music by Joseph Haydn and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Haydn was firmly situated in the eighteenth century; but he always seemed to be looking to the future by taking new, and occasionally daring, approaches to making music in a wide diversity of genres. On the other hand, we call Rachmaninoff a twentieth-century composer, since that is the century of most of his mature life; but his music always seems to be a reflection on the previous century, to which he knew he could never return.

Both of these composers have many familiar compositions, but Kim did not play any of them. His Haydn selection was the Hoboken XVI/31 sonata (also called a divertimento) in E major. In the spirit of a divertimento, its three movements are relatively short. Nevertheless, Haydn has his thematic material jump through a variety of inventive hoops; and it is easy to imagine that he wrote this piece for instructional purposes to demonstrate to the student how easy it is to depart from the routine into more imaginative inventiveness. Kim basically let this music speak for itself through a clear account of the marks Haydn had put on paper without trying to overdo any of the inherently clever rhetorical turns.

The Rachmaninoff selections came from the two collections of études that he called Études-Tableaux (study pictures). From the first set, Opus 33, he played the first in F minor and the fourth in D minor. From the second set, Opus 39, he played the second in A minor, the fifth in E-flat minor, and the seventh in C minor. Rachmaninoff described these pieces as “music evocations of external visual stimuli;” but he was not specific about those stimuli. Rather, he felt that, for any one of these pieces, listeners (and, presumably, the pianist) should “paint for themselves what it most suggests.”

As a performer of études, Kim certainly worked hard to make sure that all the notes were in their proper place. However, he never seemed quite to catch on to how Rachmaninoff could weave elaborate textures of counterpoint, often summoning up more voices than one feels capable of counting. As has been the case since Renaissance counterpoint at its most ornate, this is often a matter of highly fluid movement between foreground and background. Sadly, Kim showed few signs of appreciating what foreground and background were, let alone how he could express that fluidity through his execution. Instead, the listener was treated to the spectacle of jumping through an imposing series of hoops with little recognition that playing an étude might involve something more. Ironically, it was through Rachmaninoff’s efforts to find a link to those “visual stimuli” that we can appreciate that he was as capable of “looking forward” as Haydn was; but, apparently, Kim never saw that memo.

The final set by Bobby Mitchell, on the other hand, involved a clearer distinction between present and past. However, while Frederic Rzewski’s “Ruins” is situated very much in the present, there is good reason to see a retrospective connotation in his title. Structurally, “Ruins” is a chaconne. However, Rzewski runs his chaconne through the same sort of meat-grinder of provocative contemporary virtuosity that had “processed” the traditional theme-and-variations form in “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (which Mitchell had played this past Thursday). “Ruins” is a much shorter piece; but it is a stimulating example of how tried-and-true approaches from the past can find a new set of unique voices in the immediate present.

“Ruins” was followed by a performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 58 sonata in B minor. To call Mitchell’s approach idiosyncratic would be the height of understatement. One might almost accuse him of deliberately reducing the score to “ruins” from which any recognition of Chopin would be, at best, fragmented. Perhaps Mitchell wished remind us that the need for intense political conscience, which seems to be a dominant quality in Rzewski’s lifeworld, has no room for the likes of a Chopin.

The most challenging portion of the program was the second set presented by Eunmi Ko, making her San Francisco debut. She has taken a great interest in the Korean composer Isang Yun, who was forced to move to Germany after he defied South Korean law by visiting North Korea. Yun died in Berlin in 1995; and, over the last few years, Ko has commissioned composers to write “tribute pieces” to honor the memory of Yun’s life and works. She played seven of these recent works (six of which were world premieres), along with Yun’s “Interludium A.”

The problem is that Yun’s music has not been given very much attention in this country. As a result he was probably unfamiliar to just about everyone in the audience. Unfortunately, the only way that such listeners could orient themselves was by visiting a Web page on Ko’s Web site. Listeners were advised to do so when Ko was introduced (provided they turned off the ring-tone on their cell phones). However, there is considerable detail on this Web page, not the sort of thing that can be read while listening at the same time, let alone on the limited size of a phone display.

At best one could appreciate Yun’s approach to abstraction. One might even begin to recognize how that abstraction triggered the efforts of the composers Ko had commissioned. (However, Yun’s own piece was not the first one to be played.) However, all of this was really too much, particularly in the context of two other very full sets. This is a project that cries out for an extended lecture-demonstration with just as much attention paid to the quality of the lecture text as to the music being performed. That would be a full-evening project. which would require as much commitment to persuasion through text as to offering a compelling piano performance.

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