Saturday, May 18, 2019

Four Pianists and Two Keyboards at O1C

Sara Cahill and Regina Myers (from the O1C event page for this performance)

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented a program organized by pianists Sarah Cahill and Regina Myers around musical selections exploring different aspects of social justice as motivation and inspiration. The compositions themselves were for both one and two pianos. For the most part, Cahill and Myers played different instruments; but they shared a common keyboard for two selections. For two of the compositions, they were joined by two additional pianists, Riley Nicholson and Monica Chew, with four hands on each keyboard.

The works on the program were composed between 1979 and the immediate present. Two of the piano solo selections, divided between Cahill and Myers, were premiere performances. Myers played the world premiere of Sharmi Basu’s “A muted body,” which recalled John Cage compositions that dealt more with activities to be engaged by the performer, rather than just a matter of fingers picking out notes based on score pages. Cahill gave the West Coast premiere of Teresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees, inspired by a Nina Simone song based on a text by Harlem Renaissance poet William Waring Cuney.

Only three of the offerings were written before 2000, and I have to confess that they awakened several comforting feelings of nostalgia. The oldest was “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” the last of the four pieces in the North American Ballads collection that Frederick Rzewski composed between 1978 and 1979. Cahill and Myers played a two-piano version that enhanced the emergence of rhythmic complexities derived from the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. The ballad itself, however, is more concerned with the dehumanization of the worker than the complexity of the machine; and the performance elicited a poignancy upon reflection on how much further dehumanization has advanced under the Digital Revolution.

The program began with music for two pianos that Meredith Monk composed for her multimedia Ellis Island project. Rather than focusing on the usual American-the-land-of-immigrants trope, Monk and her colleague Bob Rosen chose to dwell on those turned back from Ellis Island, for whom the venue was known as the “Isle of Tears.” Cahill and Myers played an almost hypnotizing keyboard composition based on elaborate polyrhythms. I may have been fooling myself, but I liked to believe that Monk’s elaborate textures could be sorted out better because one piano was a Steinway and the other a Baldwin.

The other twentieth-century piece was Elinor Armer’s “Mirror, Mirror,” which she wrote in 1992 for a centennial celebration of her composition teacher Darius Milhaud. This was the piece that Cahill and Myers played on a single keyboard; and it was a satirical work based on the premise that four-hand performances have a tendency to be competitive, rather than cooperative. As the piece evolved, it was clear that sharing the keyboard was a contentious issue with each pianist reaching over into the other’s “turf.” There is, of course, the four-hand sonata by Milhaud’s former colleague Francis Poulenc, which divides the keyboard up into “center,” played by one pianist, and “outer margins” played by the other. That is music that is as much fun to watch as it is for listening; and Armer’s composition makes for a latter-day reflection on that same virtue.

The risk of the sort of program prepared for last night is that it serves up too much of a good thing. However, the pieces were short enough that all of the selections could be played without intermission. As a result, the programmatic undercurrents made for an experience more in the manner of an extended suite, rather than a sequence of separate works. Yes, there were intervals of rearranging who was sitting at which keyboard; but they were brief. More important was unification under different perspectives on the social world that made the entire program a highly satisfying journey.

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