in: Reviews

February 12, 2011

Minimalism and Imagination from NEC’s Brubaker

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Bruce Brubaker very quietly opened his faculty recital Thursday, February 10 at NEC’s Jordan Hall with his right hand virtually recreating John Cage’s piano solo, Dream. The pianist next concentrated on his left hand for much of Philip Glass’s mostly quiet Etude No. 5. To conclude the recital, Brubaker chose Inner Cities II by Alvin Curran, some twenty-five minutes of very soft sounds, where both hands followed one after the other, the left taking two rising notes and the right another two. Perhaps softest of all, though, was Brubaker’s encore. In the lobby at recital’s end, many were left wondering, “What did he play?” (He had not announced title or composer.) It turned out to be Robert Schumann’s Warum? Op. 12.

It was during intermission that I overheard someone remark about Cage’s Dream. “So, …?” Good question, too! Dream’s small all-around range — recall that the left hand has had very little to do, add to that absolutely no virtuosity, whatsoever —  makes this music sound like something a kid might have composed or played. Gentle melodic drifting through Phrygian modality with fleeting punctuations made of simple harmonies and the now-and-then splashes of color coming from a quick sequence of notes issued from under Brubaker’s ultra-soft touch. Could these objects have been played down by composer and performer to such an extent that a listener just might not have caught them? A tiny jolt came on the final note, but that, too was quite subtle.

Waiting for “something to happen” in the slowly and softly unfolding of Curran’s Inner Cities II could have meant for some listeners shorter and longer periods of “down” time. During the first five minutes of the  minimalist score, four ascending notes gradually reordered themselves. The wait for any new notes ended with the sounding of four new ones. Somewhere around fifteen-plus minutes, a harmony that had a little (yet delicious) bite to it, made several brief appearances. Near the last of the piece, out of the blue came eight measures of the old standard, “Body and Soul,” its jazzy harmonization kept cool as cool can be, presumably in keeping with one of Brubaker’s ideas about the evening’s personality.

Quite a bit more came between all of this quietness: the Boston premiere of Drones & Piano, by Nico Muhly, commissioned for Bruce Brubaker by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Over the pre-made and amplified drones of Muhly, Brubaker displayed the composer’s piano interjections with explosive volatility and for the hymn-like section, varying degrees of an unusually heightened sensitivity.

On this intriguing program it was Brubaker’s set of two etudes by Phillip Glass juxtaposing two fantasy pieces by Robert Schumann that was the most challenging — the rest of the pieces being of a much simpler, more direct expression. Suddenly, after the New Yorker Glass’s serene Etude No. 5, Schumann’s Fantasy Piece, Op. 111 No. 1 roared in. Brubaker then eased into Glass’s slow Etude No. 4, the repeated bass note C seeming to spiral out of the whirlwind C harmony of Schumann’s late opus. This Op. 111 No. 2, wrought with repeating notes alluding to Glass and the countermelodies and inner voices — abstracted as they were by Brubaker in a Modernist bent — in ways played right into minimalism.

Mark Mobley read from Alan Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra to music of the same title by Philip Glass: urban compression of rural or Pentecostal church expression. Preaching his way through this poem set in the Midwest, Mobley created a sense of an American regional spiritual culture. For his part, Brubaker maintained an artful refinement of Glass’s own  take-off on gospel piano. At times, surprisingly, the piano overtook some of Mobley’s words.

Throughout the recital could hardly be heard a muffled cough, a shuffling foot, or a page turned. Yet, “It wasn’t a very exciting program, was it?” offered one of the quiet concertgoers afterwards. Bruce Brubaker, Chairman of the Piano Department at  NEC, surely raised æsthetic questions, responding with uncommon musicality.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

4 Comments

  1. There is mental “excitement” and there is viscerally heart-pounding excitement. The latter has its place, of course,and is most often–though not exclusively–associated with the “warhorse” repertoire. The former, it seems to me, is really no less “exciting.” I’d like to make a perhaps dangerous analogy to another art form, Japanese noh drama, where the frequent moments of stasis and the extremely slow motions of a dance tradition that is perhaps the most literally “grounded” of all dance forms can rivet the mind with an intensity (a “mental excitement”?) that is almost unimaginable. When the protagonist of a noh play stands perfectly still while chanting, and suddenly jerks his arm to flip an embroidered pendant sleeve at a crucial moment of the text, or slowly opens his fan while standing erect and otherwise motionless, the “harmony” of the performance changes. And when he stamps his foot slowly and gravely during the dance-portion of the play, the tempo changes, too. The subtle gradations of loud and soft in both the noh protagonist’s chant and the chorus’s taking over of the actor’s “voice” are equally fascinating (I don’t want to say “hypnotic” or “mesmerizing,” because such terms suggest a relinquishing of the audience’s mental control and emotional involvement, which are in fact heightened, not lessened, for anyone who is attentively watching and listening). So, too, in Bruce Brubaker’s choice of material and in his extraordinary performances of the quietest pieces on his program, people listening and watching with attention were bound to find the evening “exciting.” I am as thrilled at experiencing seventeen gradations of pianissimo as I am at a fortissimo display of Liszt’s double octaves. Your review is deeply appreciative, and your comment about the lack of coughing and shuffling speaks to the way in which Bruce Brubaker’s concentrated intensity and artfully nuanced performances held the audience under the sway of his ten expressive fingers. I found the entire program wonderfully “exciting.” Thank you for this review.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm

  2. no kid I know could play the piano like that. The command of sound and voicing and even, it seemed, of the flow of time itself, was the material of this performance. Uncanny!

    Comment by roberts — February 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm

  3. Brubaker’s concert itself was an artwork. All the pieces were built on drones, that made a resonant context for the new music by Nico Muhly. Everything was organized around a central vortex (Glass’s Wichita Vortex). The concert program, the making of such connections can be such a thing of beauty!

    Comment by erica — February 16, 2011 at 8:59 pm

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