With a private performance at the White House for the Clintons, a horde of appearances amidst a number of America’s orchestras, rounds of solo recitals abroad, and the 2008 Pro Musicis International Award in hand, the young and promising Claire Huangci – a pianist possessing, according to one pundit, “the fastest fingers in the world” -played on February 28 at the Longy School of Music, Cambridge.
Bach’s Toccata in C minor BWV 911 found unusual nurturing at the hands of this newcomer. Brightly paced tempos, even in the adagio sections, turned the toccata into a youthful, altogether stunning, experience. More pianism than usually heard in Bach came through the remarkable choices and placements of her crescendos and diminuendos. Pedaling, staccato playing, and absolutely clear touch brought about a dazzling Bach. When she zoomed through the last toccataesque flourish, the pianist’s quick mind was as much in evidence as her fleet fingers.
Both higher speeds and greater power materialized in Claire Huangci’s performance of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata. Much of the darkness of this piece, so tempting to so many interpreters, here, became tinged with light. In the first movement, the hopeful pianist redirected minor triads, with their brooding tendencies, toward hopeful, assuring expression.
The second, slow movement was not so slow and seemed to have been given air on which to thrive. A wonder-filled sense of levity could be heard, particularly in the memorable little bass melody cast in dotted rhythm, which she unconsciously turned into an understated dance rhythm.
The last movement rocketed by, leaving listeners in awe. Incredible surges of power signaled this youth’s exceptionally deep engagement not only with the instrument but with the soul of one of music’s most venerated, most played, and most thought about composers of all times.
Huangci’s vision of Chopin’s third sonata followed somewhat along that of the Bach and Beethoven. The further we moved into this fast-moving and totally enthralling program, the more her interpretation of melodies, textures, and piano registers evoked images of an entire symphonic orchestra. Even at electrifying speeds, the variegated orchestral simulations did not escape her performance.
Could it have been my seeing on the program Pletnev’s fabulous piano arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet and orchestral gem, The Nutcracker, that prompted my asking, “Is she, too, thinking orchestra?” Claire Huangci really did make us believe that we were hearing trumpets in the March, the celesta in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy-this “imitation” the most unbelievable-and harps in Pas de Deux.
Excited applause from a small audience brought her back for a brilliant, if not hilarious, rendition of Mozart’s popular “Turkish March” that slipped in and out of jazz and ragtime. When was the last time such spontaneous laughter was heard at a recital?
It was Gunther Schuller who headed up a committee that selected Claire Huangci for the 2008 Pro Musicis award. Founded in Paris by a priest, Pro Musicis, promotes young and gifted performers in traditional concert venues as well as in outreach programs in prisons and schools. At a reception following the concert, Ms. Huangci told us that she had enjoyed performing recently in a nursing home.
An amazed Schuller bubbled, “This hand has ball bearings and,” tapping her forehead, “you have a computer up there,” Claire Huangci, who was born in Rochester, New York, told us that her parents gifted her with a piano when she was six. She started playing a half year later but was not interested at all, not until she reached the age of 15. It came as quite a surprise to learn that she never had to practice speed; it was something that came completely naturally to her. As for power, though, she has been learning with her teacher, that this comes from the right kind of breathing, “down deep in the stomach.” To hear her talk, she sounds like any regular teenager, but her playing is a world apart from adolescence.
“You’re 18 now?” someone asked. She said, “Oh, yes. But I will be 19 next month!” The next time this hugely talented young virtuoso visits Boston, my guess is that it will not be so easy to find a seat in the house.