Variations on the Piano

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

I heard two solo piano recitals this week–two very different musicians, in quite different halls, but both playing Steinway concert grands. In Chapel Hill, Carolina Performing Arts presented András Schiff, in one of the final concerts in the last chapter of his Bach Project, playing The Goldberg Variations to a full house in Memorial Hall on Oct. 23. Schiff, who was born in Budapest in 1953, has been lauded for decades for his exquisite musicianship, his deep understanding of Bach and Beethoven in particular, and his many accomplishments in performance and recording. He seems to be past all striving for fame and glory to swell the ego; he smiled like a meditating gnome as he unrolled the glorious many-colored carpet of variations on the lovely opening aria. I’ve been listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s recording lately, enjoying its unhurried pace, dreamy sentiment and lush sensuality, but in Schiff’s concert the tempi were more varied (though never rushed), the colors were brighter, the patterns sharper, and the feelings more fully considered.

Yuja Wang, who appeared to inaugurate the Duke Performances piano recital series to a sell-out crowd in Duke’s newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium, was born in Beijing in 1987, and is currently taking the world by storm. The 26-year-old pyrotechnic wizard, quite unlike Schiff, maximizes her personal impact on stage–no chance of her charms going unnoticed. On the 24th for her Baldwin recital she wore a tiny red dress that would easily have fit in the pocket of Schiff’s loose matte black smock, and extremely high-heeled shoes. Her playing, powerful and precise, was even showier than her fashion choices. She played a mixed program, that whatever else one may have thought, demonstrated that Baldwin is a very wonderful room for solo piano.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

She opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, Op. 28, and gave a dazzling interpretation of that tempestuous single-movement work which premiered in Petrograd in the spring of 1918. Wang gave it all the disturbance, glamour and hope of its time and place, if not any of the darkness and blood. She also played the living daylights out of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: Three Movements for Piano, which he developed in 1921 from his orchestral ballet music for Petrouchka. It is loud and fast and hard, full of challenging passages, and well-suited for Wang’s prodigious technique and flashy panache.

Her approach to Chopin seems to be much the same as it is to Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and for this listener, that means she does not make the music come to life, no matter how brilliantly she plays the notes. I admit to being extremely choicey about my Chopin, because I love it so, especially the piano music. I was raised on Rubenstein, and latter fell for Ashkenazy, two players who find the nuances, the melancholy, the joy, the grace–the heart–nestled in the grandeur. It is possible that Wang, given fifteen or twenty years and some heartbreak and bad health, if she can fit them into her touring schedule, might become a superlative interpreter of Chopin. I was hard-pressed to stay in my seat for the hard shiny versions of Sonata, Nocturne and Ballade she played on the 24th. At intermission, the person in front of me noted that she’d wanted to throw something at the pianist during the Sonata.

Wang played three encores, during which I found solace in remembering Schiff’s meltingly beautiful encore from the previous night. After the extraordinary rendition of the 75-minute Goldberg Variations (ah, the benefits of age, experience and uncloaked feeling on top of technique), Schiff returned to the stage and played the entire Beethoven Sonata no. 30, Op. 109.  No one who was there will forget it.

The Tetzlaff Quartet: Crystal-Clear in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

It’s easy to decide to go a concert when you already know and love the music that will be played, but how much more rewarding it is to become smitten with music you doubted you’d even like. I went to hear the brilliant Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Elisabeth Kufferath, violin; Hanna Weinmeister, viola, and Tanja Tetzlaff, cello) play Beethoven; I came away with a newfound interest in the very different music of Alban Berg.

The Tetzlaff Quartet performance in Baldwin Auditorium October 19 was the second in this season’s Chamber Arts series of Duke Performances, but the first concert I’d been able to attend in the newly renovated hall. The pieces played by this virtuosic quartet of German and Austrian musicians (who come together several times a year to perform in some of the world’s finest concert halls) highlighted the acoustic qualities of the new Baldwin. The Berg work, in particular, would not have been the ravishing thing it was in Reynolds Theater.

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum. Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum.
Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s in Vienna early in the 20th century, along with Anton Webern. Together they formed a new Viennese school of music, a foray into the new analogous to the new visual art of the Vienna Secession. It turns out that Schoenberg had a foot in both camps, a piece of knowledge that came my way recently when I visited “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900,” at the National Gallery, London. The show included several portraits by Schoenberg, the earlier of which were quite dreadful. Not having any commissions, he wrangled sitters from his family and friends. Fortunately, by the time he painted this portrait of his 25-year-old student, he had acquired a modicum of technique.

Berg began to write his Lyric Suite, performed so touchingly by the Tetzlaff, in 1925. It seems that he fell in love with a woman not his wife in that year, and the Lyric Suite is a passionate coded declaration of love for this woman. It combines Schoenbergian theory with Mahlerian, even Wagnerian, romanticism with extraordinary eloquence, grasping the soul while titillating the intellect.

The work has six sections; the sounds in one feed the sounds in the next, until it circles back around. Many of these sounds are very delicate, as light as insect wings brushing a screen before vanishing like a breath, but as a whole the work is robust, sinuous, replete with human emotion. The quartet made a great wholeness out of the crystalline notes, communicating tenderness, passion and a brilliant self-awareness that eschewed sentimentality.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, op. 20, no. 2, a very pretty thing with all the instruments “talking” to each other and motifs racing and chasing each other in the final movement. This quartet is considered the first real string quartet–in its time it was modern–and it made a clever prelude for the Berg Lyric Suite. Following intermission, the players went back a little in time to the timeless Beethoven (whose death mask I’d just seen in the London show, along with drawings made of his hands as he lay dying in 1827–the face was much diminished, but the hands were large and powerful).

The Tetzlaff played one of the late quartets, No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132, from 1825, giving the audience a chance to think back to last year’s concert in Reynolds by the Belcea Quartet, who played op. 130, including the Grosse Fugue, and op. 131, and to contrast the acoustics of the halls and the styles and tones of the two quite different musical quartets, as well as the music itself.

No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132 has five movements, and its opening includes a theme that appears in both the Grosse Fugue and op. 131, but as played by the Tetzlaff, it conveys very different emotions. The Tetzlaff mysteriously combines the robust and earthy with a limpid ethereality that evokes the eternal return. Their playing is so clean and clear that it runs over you like spring water as the feelings run through you: an untormented acceptance of fate, of death; the piquant clarity of vision accompanying reprieve and new strength; the tremendous emotion at the awareness of blood coursing in and out of your heart; the joy of the great dance of life, everlasting.

People Get Ready, There’s a Train a-Comin’

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

“People Get Ready” opens the great Curtis Mayfield song released in 1965, but I always hear it in my mind as sung by North Carolina bluesman Sonny Terry with fellow Piedmont bluesman Brownie McGhee. For years I thought it said “there’s a change a-comin’.” Well, in Durham, there generally is a train comin’ down the tracks, but recently it’s a train of change that has jumped the rails and is running uptown, downtown and all over Duke. “You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.” For one of the big, grand changes, you will, however, need a ticket–or, preferably, season tickets–because if you love music, you will want to visit a venue you’ve been shunning.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Baldwin Auditorium, which so gracefully closes the north end of the long quad of Duke’s East Campus, was built in 1927, and ever since, it has been a pretty terrible place to hear music. Even after a renovation in the mid-1980s, the sound quality was poor, and the room uncomfortable. As Scott Lindroth, Professor of Music and Vice-Provost for the Arts noted, drily, “What we’ve not had at Duke is a world-class performance venue.” Those days are OVER. A $15 million train run by acoustical engineers, passionate architects, demanding musicians and an outstanding impresario has passed through Baldwin and rendered all beautiful. This morning, Duke faculty and staff opened the almost-ready hall for a media tour, and they had every right to their proud and happy faces. Baldwin, which connects to Duke’s music building, will be the music department‘s performance home, and the venue for Duke Performances‘ classical music offerings. The Ciompi Quartet will perform Sept. 21, and an amazing variety of classical, jazz and vocal music will follow, with an exciting program featuring the great Dianne Reeves coming up on Oct. 4.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard's performance.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard’s performance.

In case the naturally skeptical reporters doubted the acoustic quality of the room, Eric Pritchard, Professor of the Practice of Music and first violin in the Ciompi Quartet, was on hand with his violin to demonstrate. Even before the acoustical fine-tuning that will occur over the next few weeks, the music was astonishing. Sitting 5th row center, under the dome, I felt like I was inside the violin. I can still feel the music quivering on my skin. With all the changes that have been made, the hall is wonderfully resonant, and completely lacking in the echo bouncing off the balcony that had previously muddied all music. The vibrancy of the room makes you realize that Reynolds, for all its attributes, is a little muffled, and that it is not just the chairs in Nelson Music Room that are a little hard. The new Baldwin is also a visual treat. The warm-toned wood covering many of the theater’s surfaces is figured anigre, an African wood, cut from a single large tree (even without this knowledge, you feel the ineffable harmony of wholeness). The 1/16th inch veneers were bent and applied to the  vacuum-pressed plywood substrates built up in layers to as much as an inch thick by Apex-based Woodpecker Industries. The wow factor is very high in the lovely complex curves, which swoop above and around the 685 seats with their pale beech arms and (surprise!) Duke blue upholstery.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the results of six years of work.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the renovations.

Ray Walker, a staff architect at Duke for 39 years, who coordinated the Baldwin make-over, explained some of the mysteries of acoustics as he led the walk-through. Because the auditorium was square, which is bad for sound, they built a box within its box, creating side lobbies around a rectangular hall. They broke up wall surfaces to increase resonance. They installed all sorts of shades and curtains that can be pulled to soften sound when needed. They engineered all those wonderful curves so sound could flow. They corralled the HVAC equipment in an underground vault outside so there will be no vibration or hum. Working with Jaffe Holden acoustical consultants, and Pheiffer Partners Architects, Duke seems to have thought of nearly everything.

The only thing missing from the new Baldwin is a coat check room. Sigh.

Here are a few details of the interior.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Wouldn't believe it if there weren't 'before' photos.

Wouldn’t believe it if there weren’t ‘before’ photos.

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