Pianist Edward Neeman (courtesy of Old First Concerts)
Yesterday afternoon at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts series presented a solo recital by the Australian-American pianist Edward Neeman. Neeman used the occasion to introduce the music of his teacher at Australian National University, Larry Sitsky, to the audience. He devoted the second half of the program to the West Coast premiere performance of Sitsky’s first piano sonata. The composer names for the first half, Jan Ladislav Dussek and Paul Schoenfield, were probably familiar to at least some of the audience; but the compositions themselves were most likely “first contact” experiences.
Sitsky gave his first sonata the title “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau” (retrieve from the waters of the abyss), a phrase referring to the voodoo ritual that invokes the invisible spirits of the dead. Each of the movements has a programmatic title, beginning with “The Waters of the Abyss.” This is followed by “Invocations of the Invisibles,” “Loa of the Crossroads,” and “Danse de rejuissance” (dance of rejoicing). He wrote this sonata for Neeman, who gave the world premiere performance at the Juilliard School.
Any programmatic framework is secondary to the strikingly aggressive improvisatorial rhetoric of the music. The details of the ritual (which Neeman tried to explain without very much success) are secondary to the more general idea of the loss of the individual self as part of an ecstatic religious ceremony. The music itself abounds with violent tone clusters, which could not have done a better job of orienting curious listers in preparation for the celebration of the music of Henry Cowell to be presented by Bard Music West at the beginning of next month. At the same time, there is at least the appearance of an intense devotion to the faith behind the ritual, suggesting that this music could have been written by Olivier Messiaen had he, in another life, chosen voodoo over Catholicism.
The Sitsky sonata was definitely the high point of Neeman’s recital. His approach to Dussek’s final piano sonata, Opus 77 in F minor, given the title “L’invocation,” tended to be weak on grounds of both technique and rhetoric. Neeman played as if he had lead weights on his right foot, muddling any sense of Dussek’s skills as a polyphonist in a murk of sustained notes. Schoenfield’s witty music has had several advocates in San Francisco; but, according to Neeman, he and his teacher, James Tocco, are the only ones (other than Schoenfield) to have performed the composer’s Peccadilloes suite. Unfortunately, in hammering out all of the notes on the score pages, Neeman never managed to capture any of that trademarked Schoenfield wit in this composition.
Neeman’s encore came from one of Fanny Mendelssohn’s collections of short pieces entitled Songs Without Words, but he never bothered to say which piece from which collection.