Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Day 5: Choice Works and American Post-1940

Sean Yeh chose Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 36 because he likes the “intensity and tranquility” of the Rachmaninoff’s style, his use of chords, of density and melody. He selected the Rachmaninoff's own 1931 revision of the 1913 original which Sean said seems "long and redundant." The Steinway concert grand brought into Charles Allis Art Museum responded well to Sean’s various touches for color, and his performance revealed his passion for this music. It also boasted of a light, even, effortless, and powerful technique.

His second choice, movements II. Allegro vivace e leggiero and IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirito from Sonata Opus 26 by Samuel Barber, is a delightful and intricate piece which he played masterfully. As he described the second movement, it is in a 3-4/4-4 tempo, and “sounds like a person dancing a waltz is stumbling .” He captured the spirit of the playfully light and somewhat scattered music. Rhythmically, it felt unsettled, perhaps only because of the complicated meter. In the last movement, Sean managed the drama well with his technique, although like the Rachmaninoff he could have made more of phrases and rests between the exchanges of ideas. Practice rooms have a much faster sound decay than bigger concert halls, so even if he did practice this way he would need to slightly exaggerate to make it apparent in the hall.

Sejoon performed executed again a beautiful legato touch on Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody in A minor, no. 13, transcribed by Arcadi Volodos. In the first section, he brought out the melody well amidst light flourishes up and down the keyboard. When the piece really picked up, it became difficult for a few measures to hear any melody, but Sejoon catapulted into the finale with fire and fresh musicality.

As Sejoon said in his speech, "The Poltergeist (Rag Fantasy)" by William Bolcom is "the mother of all poltergeists" that, "instead of slipping in one banana trick, throws down twenty!" In other words, it is full of practical jokes. One major joke is its "frozen appoggiatura" form in which the piece concludes with the 3rd theme rather than the 1st theme. Bolcom also throws in "hand-slaps" to the keyboard in the middle of a bluesy section, which shocks the listener. It was a fun piece to listen to, difficult to play but polished.

Amy compared the sound of Ravel's "Jeux Deau" to Monet's Water Lillies. Her touch was crystalline, and her even, inner lines became the painted brush-strokes she imagined in the sound. She shaped the colors with an accurate and graceful interpretation of this beautiful piece.

From Joan Tower's contemporary set No Longer Very Clear, Amy performed "Vast Antique Cubes," a slow and distant work that "explores wide spaces on the piano." She wholly conveyed the "still, frozen, and fragile" aura she wished to convey. In "Or Like a...an Engine," Amy showed an attentive ear to harmony and a feel for space and time. As she said, the piece is "rapid, spiky, like a toccata... and perpetual... like train wheels."

Choo Choo gave a wonderful performance of the little-known Kabalevsky Rondo in A minor, Opus 59, which apparently Van Cliburn played when he won the Tchaichovsky Competition. She had a confident, direct touch and led the listener in the direction it seems the composer would have desired.

Barber's Excursions for the Piano are "altered versions of American folk, jazz, pop, and classical genres." The four movements essentially include a "boogie-woogie, blues, campfire song, and a hoe-down." Choo-Choo played III. Allegretto first, a rolling, smooth, affectionate piece reminiscent of the campfire songs. It is full of interesting ideas which change up the monotony a campfire song might develop. Last, she performed IV. Allegro molto, a blue-grass style dance with flair. For the musician and listener, they are intellectually stimulating as well as enjoyable to listen to. It will be a pleasure to hear her play the entire set some day.

Yoshiko's pieces were both from later in the composers' lives, at a point when they were in deep depression, as she informed the audience. The pieces show them "striving to conquer." Again, Yoshiko gave a very well-informed speech. Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin is a suite in honor of not only the composer Couperin, but a homage to whole French group of "Clavecinists" from the 17th century, where the "tombeau" was a common musical genre of composition. She performed movements I. Prelude, V. Menuet, and VI. Toccata. In the slower movements, her sound was velvet with sublime subtleties, and her light, breathy touch formed the colors. The busy, lively toccata was an adrenaline rush, and even when some notes did not project, they were not missed.

Barber's Ballade, Opus 46 is certainly "restless" as Yoshiko pointed out, and it was composed shortly after his partner had left him. She played delicately, sensitive to sonorities but also disaplyed strength in the tense middle section.

Brian also performed Rachmaninoff's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 36. But contrary to Sean, he felt the original 1913 signature feels more "full and complete." Brian has great dynamic control and finger clarity. In his performance, the sheer volume shook my chest, and yet it was not a harsh sound. Some difficult sections became too labored, however, where a lighter color might have been employed.

George Rochberg's Carnival Music was composed in 1971 and represents an American vernacular blues style. Rochberg had been a modernist-style composer until about 1964 when his son died. As Brian informed us, the beginning "floats around keys" and then in the middle has a section developmentally Brahmsian, then returns to the American style and fast key changes. It was an enjoyable bluesy ragtime that diverged into a repetitive and openly clashing material before its return.

"I don't normally play pieces that are showy and flashy, but for a competition this big, I figured, 'What the heck,' " was Hunter Jennings' final statement before performing Liszt's Polonaise No. 2. Too bad, because he captured the pompous, melodramatic, showy character needed for this type of piece. He displayed fine finger-work and a well-planned overall form with a climactic finale.

Hunter enlightened us about a little-known composer, Barrill Phillips, whose "wit and humor" in his later music was overshadowed by his early 1930's music, reviewed as "amateurish." At the Piano Promenades on Tuesday, he introduced the piece with a smile as "something you have probably never heard before and, after I play it, will probably never hear again." In his speech he referred, cleverly, to the form of this contemporary piece as a "parody on theme and variations." This is because the theme is manipulated each time upon return until, by the end, it is almost completely gone, "which is why I call it a 'parody' on theme and variations." Hunter has an aptness for this contemporary music and had a clear way of communicating the significance of certain moments. He also revealed several different touches and colors within a successful interpretation.

Alexander loves Chopin's Polonaise in A-flat major, Opus 53, ("Heroic"), because of the many emotions in it, such as "bravery, desire... hope, and passion." As he shared, it was written in Paris although it represents Polish patriotism. The difficult opening 4ths were strong, and he showed good taste in dynamic control and contrast. Especially notable were the light, impetuous left-hand octaves throughout the long middle section.

"As pianists," said Alexander, "it's all too easy to hit two notes with the thumb." But it is difficult to hit two notes with the index finger, and that is just what George Crumb calls for his Processional piece. Crumb writes six-note chords, two of the notes being played by the second finger curled under and playing with the knuckle.
Afterward, while chatting backstage, it came out that Alexander forgot to mention that Crumb has an entire manual for prepared piano and playing inside the piano for this piece. During the speech itself, Alexander described the piece as "cosmic" and "out of our grasp... like the states of nature... not of emotion." The most contemporary of all the pieces in the competition, Alexander did a nice job of creating mystery with washes of tones and "sympathetic tones."

Yi An performed Liszt's Transcendental Etude IX. Ricordanza in A-flat major (Remebrance) because it is "incredibly musical, lyrical, and has firework-sparkling passages." She reminded us that Liszt practiced up to 12 hours each day, honing his technique with scales, arpeggios, and finger techniques - "things we all hate." He composed the piece at age 15, in 1826, and revised it in 1837. The "Remembrance" etude is a good choice for her modest approach - it is not as showy as other etudes, but it is just as technically demanding. It was not quite passionate; it was reflective, like a memory, like the title.

For "The Serpent's Kiss" by William Bolcom, from The Garden of Eden, Four Rags for the Piano, Yi An played a sample of the music: "As you can see, someone is up to no good." The theme is has a diabolical tinge to it, though still in an entertaining mood. The piece includes fun stomps, clicks with the mouth, and rhythmic knocking on the fall board.
This was her most driving and passionate performance yet.

Paige, the last performer of the day, brought Chopin's Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Opus 39, no. 3. Despite her doubts as to whether she could interpret Chopin, she gave an accomplished performance. The chordal section in particular was beautiful and felt developed rather than repetitive in the repeat of that theme.

Like Yi An, Paige gave a thrilling performance of Bolcom's "The Serpent's Kiss." She also depicted the themes vividly in her speech: first theme, the king snake; second, the queen snake; third, the young miss snake with curious love; and fourth, a party with all the snakes. At the end, Paige humorously and clearly depicted the snake chilling up in the tree as she whistled with the notes that interrupted the heated party just before a pointed and exuberant finish.


Following the day of performances, the judges met privately to select three finalists for the 2008 PianoArts National Bienniel Piano Competition and Music Festival. They chose:

Paige Chun Li; Sejoon Park; Sean Yeh

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