This afternoon the first of the three concerts in the San Francisco International Piano Festival taking place within the San Francisco city limits was presented in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The title of the program was Voice of the Piano, the implication being that an appreciation of vocal qualities often plays a significant role in arriving at appropriate approaches to expressiveness in piano performance, whether solo or in any group setting. In this case both of those options were explored.
The only solo work was presented by Daria Rabotkina during the second half of the program and involved a survey of humoresques by four different composers, each of whom had his (yes, they were all male) own distinctive “voice.” During the first half, there was one piece for piano and soprano, performed by the husband-and-wife duo of Paul and Kayleen Sánchez. Paul is a member of the New Piano Collective, the group behind the organization of the Festival; and his wife was making her San Francisco debut. In addition Johnandrew Slominski, one of the founders of the Collective, performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 414 piano concerto in A major accompanied by a string quartet of violinists Liana Bérubé and George Hayes, violist Ivo Bokulic, and cellist Michelle Kwon.
The composers Rabotkina selected for her survey were, in the order of performance, Antonín Dvořák (three of the eight humoresques in his Opus 101), Max Reger (two of the five humoresques in his Opus 20), Sergei Rachmaninoff (the fifth piece in his Opus 10 Morceaux de salon collection), and the entirety of Robert Schumann’s Opus 20, whose episodes are generally organized around the key of B-flat major. The Wikipedia page for this genre describes it as being characterized by “fanciful humor in the sense of mood rather than wit.” That description certainly fit the Reger and Rachmaninoff selections. Dvořák, on the other hand, tended to be more wistful than fanciful, using these particular pieces to reflect on instances of rustic rhetoric that he had encountered. As might be expected, Schumann’s Opus 20 is another conflicted encounter between Florestan and Eusebius, in which wildly fanciful imagination tends to overpower any sense of humor.
Rabotkina brought adept technical discipline to all four of these composers; and she made a clear case that each was “speaking in a different voice.” I am not sure she quite homed in on the qualities that distinguished Dvořák; but we have to remember that her third selection (the seventh in G-flat major) was the Dvořák humoresque, played to death in arrangements for just about every instrument and even subjected to silly lyrics. It was sufficient that she provided an opportunity to listen to this piece without any of that accumulated baggage getting in the way. Her approach to Rachmaninoff was particularly memorable, since there are so few opportunities to experience his sense of humor; and she certainly did not try to short-change any of the neuroses in Schumann’s composition.
Slominski’s “chamber” approach to the K. 414 concerto was based on Mozart’s own arrangement. It provided a more intimate framework in which to appreciate Mozart’s virtuosity and the many devices he explored for engagements between soloist and ensemble. Since the sound of the quartet was clearly reduced when compared to a string ensemble, there were a few problems in finding just the right dynamic levels on a modern grand piano; but, for the most part, Slominski negotiated those problems deftly.
The only real disappointment was the vocal selection performed by the Sánchez duo. Horizon: For Harlan was a cycle of settings of ten poems by Harlan Payne. Payne’s “day job” was that of a practicing neurologist; but it is clear that he was serious about literature as an avocation. Horizon was a setting of ten of his poems composed by Paul Sánchez; and it left the uneasy feeling that he was paying more attention to syllables than to phrases and larger-scale semantic structures. Whether that syllabic focus explained the rather flat vocal delivery presented by Kayleen Sanchez or whether her general technique still required development could not be determined on the basis of a single listening experience. Sadly, what emerged was a series of relatively brief settings that felt as if it went on forever.