Nadar’s circa 1908 photograph of Claude Debussy (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Last night in Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented the second of four concerts in a Centennial Festival series memorializing the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 1918. The series is being produced jointly by pianists Daniel Glover and Brent Smith, both of whom performed last night, along with three other pianists: Keisuke Nakagoshi, Robert Schwartz, and Laura Magnani. In addition Smith accompanied vocal performances by soprano Christa Pfeiffer and mezzos Leandra Ramm and Katherine McKee.
As might be guessed, this made for a lot of music. Unfortunately, where the music of Debussy is concerned, quantity has a way of eroding quality. One can sit for an uninterrupted two and one-half hours through Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold because the integrated flow of music and narrative escorts attention through both the vocal and instrumental offerings, never leaving the feeling that things are dragging too slowly. Debussy, on the other hand, was the consummate artist of the moment; and those moments can be so cerebrally and expressively intense at the same time that it becomes too difficult to manage too many of them in a single concert experience.
Last night’s effort to honor Debussy was marred not only by such excess but also by a sense that few of the performances had been given the necessary advance preparation. The most engaging offering evening came after the intermission, when Schwartz played the three pieces in the first book of a series that Debussy called Images. Each of those three pieces had its own agenda, so to speak, addressing, in turn, visual sensation, historical memory, and technical discipline. Schwartz knew how to honor each of those three evocations; but he also established a clear expressive stance for each of them, even when it came to the exercise-like quality of the final piece.
Schwartz’ attentiveness to the full scope of how Debussy could turn notes into music was so keen that one could not fail to recognize the shallower qualities of the other contributing pianists. Without attaching names to specific problems, there were lapses in both the notes themselves and the organizational logic behind those notes, as well as the more-than-occasional effort to take a technically challenging passage and treat it like an athletic event. The vocal selections, on the other hand, never quite homed in on the acuity of Debussy’s ability to convey his understanding of a text by one of his favorite poets in such a way than neither music nor words took a clear priority. (The program also included an example of Debussy setting one of his own texts from a collection entitled Proses lyriques.)
The overall result amounted to a slog through offerings that left little impression, a far cry from that compelling flow through a significant span of time that Wagner had mastered so well.