Saturday, June 21, 2008

Day 2: Rehearsals and Prelude Recital

Throughout Friday, Sean Yeh carried around an enormous book-bag, which threatened to topple him. "That's a big bag," I commented. "Lots of music," he replied. "I suppose."

In the morning, contestants like Brian Chang snapped into action, practicing solo material, rehearsing with MSO violinists and cellists, and working on their speeches with clinician Catherine Kautsky, chair of the UW-Madison piano department. Others caught up on sleep before the workshop, such as Choo Choo Hu, who said she slept 14 hours after hardly sleeping the night before due to involvement in a concert around Baltimore, and early-morning travels.

In the evening, all took in an outstanding display of musicality and virtuosity by Ms. Michelle Naughton, the 2006 PianoArts winner.


Internationally beloved pianist Alfred Brendel once commented in an interview with Jeremy Siepmann that he "cannot bear to hear [Domenico Scarlatti's music] on the piano." Perhaps he would be more open-minded had he heard Michelle Naughton play Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor, K. 87, L. 33 last night at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. A mixture of baroque and classical form and thematic material, the piece created a serious and cleansing atmosphere. It's hard to imagine it sounding better on anything besides piano.

Naughton made Mozart's arduous Sonata in D major, K. 576 sound effortless. Nearly every note was clearly audible, her shaping of phrases well-done, and her balance of sound remarkable. Amidst flighty passages, the main themes were brought out, never harshly pounded out. The slow, second movement was simply beautiful and showed her control of dynamics and attention to the line of a phrase. And the complex third movement was thoughtfully prepared as she handled Mozart's fugal and rhythmic tricks with grace.

Before intermission, she spoke about and performed five of William Bolcom's "12 New Etudes for Piano." As Michelle said, Bolcom is a professor at the University of Michigan, and this set won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. These contemporary technical studies were full of humor and fresh performance techniques for pianists. Number I, "Fast and Furious," was just that; it began and ended with fiery motives in the bass. It also integrated hand and full arm "slaps" to the keys. Next she played number IV, "Scene d'Opera," a plodding and subdued ground bass with episodes in higher registers. II, titled "Hi-Jinks" is both high and has a joking spirit. Michelle related the irony that Bolcom directs the performer to use little or no pedal for this piece, while most of it is in the high register where the pedal doesn't much effect the sound. However, Naughton efficiently and effectively used the pedal to capture overtones and specific sounds to highlight contrasts. She also alluded to the irony in her fourth etude, number VI having the title "Nocturne," when in a set of Etudes. And there was more irony: while we often think of consoling night music by Chopin when we hear "nocturne," this one spoke more of mischief with a soft, syncopated and slightly dissonant bass with a much louder, drawn-out, sporadic melody. She concluded the first half of the program with the etude VIII, "Rag Infernal" which was packed with energy and several "endings" that fooled the listener.

For the second half of the program, Ms. Naughton came storming back to match the expressive and tyrannically technical demands of Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme by Corelli," Opus 42. In it, Rachmaninoff manipulates Corelli's solemn, yet triumphant theme in numerous thrilling and moving ways. Naughton swiftly captured these moments, while cutting through the density of his writing which might easily weigh down a listener's ear.

Ravel's "Sonatine" revealed Naughton's control of sound and color, though at times it lacked her contemplative and expressive phrasing heard earlier. The first movement, Modere, features a beautiful melody atop fluttering below, offset by slower-moving themes. But her tempo fluctuated unnaturally, aside from the various ritardandos and a tempos. The second movement, Mouvement de Menuet was interpreted as a rather brisk minuet. However, this tempo and her lack of dynamic attention did not allow Ravel's phrases the time to sink in or be understood. It also anticipated and dulled the excitement of the climax in the middle of the movement. Another side-effect was that the third movement did not then seem as animated, though marked Animè. In combination with too little time between movements, Naughton did not effectively communicate the unique character of each movement. Some moments in the third movement seemed a bit thickly-pedaled, possibly her reaction to a suddenly squeaky pedal. Nevertheless, the final movement was precise, colorful and exciting.

By this point, many pianists would have dropped to the floor, exhausted. Michelle Naughton exuberantly got back on stage and performed Liszt's Paganini Etude in A minor, No. 6. Her fingers were still fast at work, and the depth of her tone quality stood out in this demanding piece. At the end, she brought the crowd to a standing ovation, then gratified the crowd with a charming little salon piece by Mompou.

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