Kirill Gerstein Piano Recital

The Duke Performances piano recital series continued in Baldwin Auditorium Nov. 9, with Kirill Gerstein playing a well-considered program that began delightfully and progressed toward the sublime. Gerstein’s warm sound, his joyous, jazz-inflected explorations and unguarded emotionality–as well as his thundering power and silken delicacy–made this one of the most satisfying piano concerts of my experience.

Kirill Gerstein. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Kirill Gerstein.
Photo: Marco Borggreve.

Gerstein began with a late piano work by Josef Hadyn, the Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6, from 1793, a piece whose emotions are barely controlled by its clever interlacing musical structures. The image that came to mind was that of a dark red briar rose restrained by the delicate tendrils of a twining clematis vine with its froth of pale flowers. The minor theme shaded from melancholy to grief, near the end pulsing with rhapsodic sorrow; the major theme with its many trilling decorations on a calm orderly trellis brings us back to acceptance and peace, if not joy.

That Gerstein excels in generating imagery from sound was confirmed by his performance of Robert Schuman’s fantastic Carnaval, Little Scenes on Four Notes, op. 9, from 1834. The twenty short tone-pictures and dances that make up Carnaval are all over the map, but generally are quite animated. By the end of the final “March des ‘Davidbündler’ contre les Philistines,” I felt I’d spent an evening drinking in the sights at a marvelous fair amid crowds of Commedia characters, artists, waltzing lovers and fast-moving butterflies, all resplendent with color. Some of the sections are well known, but I’d never heard the piece performed entire–it is thrilling. Section 11, “Chopin” (Agitato) provided a connecting point to the program’s first work after intermission.

Old Friend, by Timo Andres (b. 1985) received its world premiere with, strangely, no fanfare. The old friend of its title is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3. Andres, commissioned by the Gilmore Piano Foundation, wrote it for Gerstein (who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010). Although it contains what Andres calls “the skeletal melody” from the Chopin work (see his blog for his own writing about the writing of Old Friend), the main impression received from first hearing is that of  sizzling energies following their own courses–like the the motions of  particles within an atom. It would clearly take a virtuoso to play this. It begins with right and left hands moving towards each other from the extreme ends of the keyboard, but then they must cross and re-cross, the sounds tangling and re-ordering themselves. Speeding and slowing, clashing and harmonizing, the music tumbles along in increasing complexity, before spreading out like a quiet little wave. The piece is not very long, but you come out of it feeling like you’ve journeyed across the galaxy and back.

So, after that abstract adventure, we go to Pictures at an Exhibition, the grand 1874 work by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about as pictorial as music can get. In the spring of that year, Mussorgsky had helped organize a show of works by his late friend, Victor Hartmann (see images of the pictures here); he then composed a musical record of the experience of seeing them in exhibition. There are ten pictures, and the promenade that opens the work repeats three times between groups of paintings, and is reprised in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I’ve listened to this music so often that I can hardly go to a museum without hearing it as I traverse the galleries, and I’ve heard it performed more than once (most recently by Leif Ove Andsnes), but I’ve never seen the pictures with such clarity and color. They were so full of life! I think Gerstein’s jazz training gives his interpretation a vivacity that other versions lack (this holds for the Schumann piece as well). This liveliness was particularly notable where it is most needed, in (5) “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells;” (7) “Limoges: The Marketplace;” and (9) “Baba Yaga.” The wild energy of the witch with her crazy cackling gives way to the rich large sounds that build the “Great Gate of Kiev,” and the whole exhibition winds up with resonant grandeur.

I didn’t think there could be an encore after that, but following repeated ovations, Gerstein returned to the piano and gave us an exquisite goodnight: Rachmaninoff’s Melodie Op.3 No.3. So lovely. We will hope for a Rachmaninoff recording, and a return engagement at Duke by this pianist of prodigious technique and passionate expression.

MEASURE BACK: There is no time before war, and no future without it

T. Ryder Smith in MEASURE BACK. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

T. Ryder Smith in MEASURE BACK. Photo courtesy Duke Performances.

I’m old. It’s definite now. I don’t have to ask the mirror anymore. I was chosen as someone who looks old–though not rich, Jewish, or like a terrorist–by a complete stranger last night during Measure Back, an “immersive” theatre-event that depends heavily on audience participation and manipulation.  Presented jointly by Duke Performances and Manbites Dog Theater, the three-actor show, written by T. Ryder Smith, featuring him,  and directed by him and Christopher McElroen,  plays at Manbites through Sat. Nov. 9.

Perhaps it is my age that made me feel that Measure Back is a shallow thing. It’s about war–its history and its present; its whats, hows and whys, and what provokes us to it. This is hardly a new topic, but it is always laudable when artists and thinkers confront it anew. When they attempt to plumb its depths, we are harrowed and harried past our previous endpoints of thought and feeling, as we’ve seen locally in the past couple of years with Ray Dooley’s performance in An Iliad, and Ellen McLaughlin’s extraordinary Penelope at PlayMakers. Smith also uses The Iliad as source material–although he often seems dismissive of it–but he stays determinedly in the bloody shallows as he attempts to link that ancient tale to modern lives.

The games he, as The Actor, plays with the audience, along with The Actress (Dionne Audain) and The Other One (Caitlin Wells), are surely meant to make the dilemmas that lead to war, and war’s subsequent horror, more real to the audience–to literally force us to confront terrible choices. But, oddly, they have the opposite effect. The Actor often treats the audience members with condescending contempt, and  there are never any painful consequences to the little set-ups, which give way at ADHD speed to something else, or else drag on murkily far past the point one cares to try to understand them. There’s no character we can latch onto, no story through-line, except in a rather esoteric sense. There is plenty of discomfort, beginning with the dismaying moment you walk into the theater and see that all the seats have been replaced with cinderblocks, except for a few folding chairs behind a sign marked “out of order.” There are periods of very loud noise; there’s lots of fake blood and gore and the miming of barbaric tortures, the worst of which is a prolonged rape scene involving a power drill.

But none of this causes any discomfort in the soul–at least, not of the kind that might provoke one to a more careful moral philosophy or a mordant understanding of the great human tragedy called War. The mental discomfort is purely aesthetic; the mourning is for the failure of a valiant effort of Art.

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.

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