Seully Hall on the top of Boston Conservatory’s main building at 8 Fenway is too small for the number of concert-goers eager to hear pianist Ya-Fei Chuang performing on April 6, and many of them missed the Chopin as the staff scrambled to find more seats — a great pity. Ms. Chuang, who joined the music faculty three years ago, was performing as part of the Boston Conservatory Piano Masters Series.
The hall is a long, narrow barn of a space, perhaps 26 feet wide. The high-peaked ceiling is supported by massive wood beams, reminiscent of Memorial Hall at Harvard. Curtains cover the front and back walls – but they leave the bottom six feet or so exposed. There is a raised stage area in front, but the side walls are parallel and hard, as is the surface at the back of the stage area. This is not acoustically auspicious for a piano concert, as the reflections from the stage area muddle the middle and bottom notes of the piano. But the full audience kept the reverberation under control. My seat, considerately reserved by the Conservatory for BMInt personnel, was in the left half of the third row, close enough that the bass was clear and in good balance with the upper registers. A friend on the right side found the balance bass heavy. I would not have wanted to sit on the right in the rear half of the hall.
Many years ago I had the fortune to record Ya-Fei Chuang playing selections from Chopin’s Opus 28. Her playing was conventional in its rhythmic freedom, but stunning in its technical virtuosity and with feeling that touched the heart and soul. Last night I was captured and fascinated by how much her playing has grown — in rubato, the independence of the left and right hands, and in dynamic range. Phrasing was more gesture than line. The timing of the notes was all over the place – what the French call “inegal” but played with such authority that one knew that they were exactly where they belonged. Ms. Chuang’s note placement invariably made the lines more interesting and easier to hear. Prelude 15, the longest of the Frederick Chopin 24 Preludes, op. 28, showed the enormous range of dynamics she can produce, from the softest, gentlest touch to enormous bone-chilling power. The audience listened in rapt silence. Prelude 20, largo, felt almost like the Bach passion chorale. Prelude 23 was intensely lyrical, the final prelude passionate.
Maurice Ravel’s LaValse, written just after World War I (1919-1920), depicts a Viennese ball gone mad. The clarity of the left hand in the Chopin was gone, replaced by rapid, ominous, growling scales that sounded like glissandos and later in the piece to be replaced by true glissandos. The upper hand portrayed the dancers, a frenzy of notes and glissandos. Chuang’s style was furious and modern, fittingly quite different from the Chopin.
The Scarlatti Sonata in F Major K. 518 and Sonata in F Minor, K 519 were in yet another style – bright, percussive, and with very little pedal. Written for harpsichord, Chuang did her best to make them fit on a modern piano. Both in the Scarlatti and the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 36 that followed the left hand and the right hand played together, as lines flowed from one to another. The Rachmaninoff is not my cup of tea – there are more than enough notes – but she played them all with excitement and power. The audience, with many of her friends and students, responded with cheers and a standing ovation. The encore was a quiet, expressive sonata by Mendelssohn, once again demonstrating the soul that Chuang can put into her music.