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.