Some performers avoid contemporary music – it’s always labor-intensive to explore the uncharted waters of new repertoire, and it can feel like a risk to present an audience with music that is unknown. Michelle Kelley smashed that obstacle on Friday (April 23), proving how exciting a program of new and recent works for piano can be. I had heard an earlier version of the program that Kelley performed at Indian Hill Music School on March 6, and I was excited for the opportunity to hear all the music again. The location was M. Steinert & Sons, and the occasion was part of the celebration of their 150th anniversary. The event had not received much publicity, but the hall, which only holds 75, was completely full.
All six of the composers (John Craig Cooper, Ruth Lomon, Marti Epstein, Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee, John McDonald and Donal Fox) are from the Boston area, and all were able to attend. Kelley first met composer Rahbee when Kelley was a student at New England Conservatory, so in planning this concert she asked Rahbee for suggestions of other contemporary composers. She suggested Lomon, McDonald, and Fox. Cooper, however, was a composer that Kelley found on her own, encountering a piece of his in a bin of sheet music. He has spent time studying in India and working to fuse the languages of Indian and western Classical music; however, his music on this program was vigorous Americana, performed by Kelley with an appealing, crisp directness. Three New England Scapes began with “City Streets,” a bustling clash of tonalities. “On Awakening in the Country” was misty, atmospheric and blurred, moving slowly into a languid ballad. “Sidewalk Dance” was energetic and full of firm-footed stomps and earthiness evoked by the open fifths, and themes broken into chunks that were lobbed, dodged and caught.
Composer Ruth Lomon has become a good friend of mine over the last dozen years, so I certainly can’t claim any objectivity in assessing her music (not that I ever feel like I can claim objectivity…). I find that her music offers a rich depth of substance and insight, bearing repeated rehearings. Esquisses (Sketches) is a set of three pieces from the late 1980s and early 1990s (thus it was the earliest music on this program). The first, “Les Cloches” evoked a powerful low rumble of church bells; Kelley pulled a huge resonance out of the piano. It ended with an intense and intricate rhythmic battery, inspired by change ringing, which Kelley handled with great dexterity. “La Fête” was written after Lomon attended the Turtle Dance at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. After a calm beginning, it moves into the taut and sinuous motion of the dance. “Memoires de …” was a poetic musing, at times drawing on the energy of the previous movements.
The three pieces by Marti Epstein were connected by imagery of water. American Etude no. 12: “Polyrhythms” employs a relentless perpetual motion, but beneath the wash of pedal effects, it emerges as a gradual ascent from murky depths. “Marie’s Waltz” refers to the opera Wozzeck, which it draws from thematically. An effective work, it begins with disconnected, delicate phrases, floating and overlapping; the intensity builds as a tremolo distorts the ideas; it recedes in a ghostly fade-out that Kelley controlled with skill, bringing the keyboard to a stifled whisper.
Entrances and Exits by Cooper was next; it began with a bold baroque fanfare, juxtaposed with a playful, even honky-tonk interlude, and continued with contrasting episodes. Here, Kelley might have exaggerated the comic moments with more boldness.
John McDonald is a remarkably prolific composer. Kelley selected three of his works from Piano Album 2009, op. 446 for this program. His “Restorative,” no. 4 moved from Zen-like sparseness to a richer meditation. “Tripped up and Overthrown,” no. 9 described the “panicked retreat… and eventual demise” of the beetle of the poem that is the inspiration of the piece. I heard it as a creaky music box, being wound erratically, and offering bits of motives, chopped and mixed. The third work, “Therapy,” no. 8, was indeed soothing, its simple oscillating patterns offering Gamelan-like effects.
Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee’s music is a favorite with many pianists, since it is beautifully idiomatic and resonant with familiar historical styles. Her Ballade, op 110 of course invites comparisons with Chopin, and Rachmaninov’s name also comes to mind. With luscious long melodies and themes that are explored and varied, the work offered familiar narrative structure, but with tinges of modern vocabulary. Kelley’s playing was rich, shaping the phrases with a rich sense of coloring and momentum.
The program ended with Donal Fox’s exhilarating Toccata on Bach, a driving, exuberant re-creation: every note is “derived in some way or another” from the last movement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata BWV 914. A work of propulsive energy, at times filled with layered cross rhythms, it was like a familiar stained-glass window reassembled — some pieces intact, some fragmented – but with the same luminosity and breathless momentum. Kelley poured on the speed flawlessly, and cheers were mixed with the applause.
Following a well-deserved ovation, Kelley offered the Rahbee Bagatelle, op. 181 as an encore, giving it a warm and sensitive performance.
Vivian Handis of Steinert’s told us a bit about the long history of the company, the oldest music store in continual operation in the U.S. Steinert’s room (on the fourth floor, not to be confused with the once-illustrious Hall in the basement, which survives but is not in use) was an adequate space, a bit dry acoustically, and with poor sight lines, since it is long and flat. A few windows were open to let in air, but also brought in some outside noise. I appreciated being in the historic building (that I had never been in before), and enjoyed the reception in the second floor showroom.