On Saturday evening, January 21, a hardy band of music lovers trudged through a blanket of freshly fallen snow to take in a solo recital performed by the young American pianist Alexandria Le in the warm confines of Longy School’s Pickman Concert Hall. Less hardy souls had another option: this concert was also streamed live on the Web. Very 2012.
As the 2011 recipient of the prestigious Pro Musicis International Award, Le has just embarked on a series of concerts both here and in New York. This evening’s recital marked her Boston debut. The mission of Pro Musicis (“For Musicians”) centers on sharing, as envisioned by its founder, Capuchin-Franciscan priest and musician Eugène Merlet. Pro Musicis shares its resources and connections with talented musicians, in exchange expecting recipients to share their musical gifts not only in mainstream musical venues but also in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment centers, and inner city schools. Very admirable; very Saint Francis of Assisi.
From the first moment of the concert, it was abundantly clear that Le embodies the spirit of sharing that is at the core of the Pro Musicis ethos. Raised in Las Vegas, a graduate of Eastman, and currently pursuing her Doctorate of Musical Arts at SUNY/Stony Brook, Le seemed utterly at ease onstage. She prefaced each piece with informative and engaging introductory remarks, exuding a warm, outgoing, and ebullient personality.
The program was highly varied and downright kaleidoscopic, featuring both familiar and lesser-known works that were consistently challenging for the performer, and occasionally so for the audience. Four works in total: two rarely heard and two old chestnuts, utilizing fantasies as programmatic bookends. The first half charted relatively exotic musical territory, opening with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fantasy in g minor, Op. 77. This is Beethoven at his most mercurial, a highly spontaneous-sounding work that seems a window unto the composer’s formidable improvisatory gifts. Commissioned by Muzio Clementi, this piece veers abruptly through myriad meters and tonal centers, with paroxysms of virtuosity juxtaposed with ephemeral lyricism. Through it all, Le demonstrated both grace and power, playing deep in the keys and tossing off the more technically demanding passages with aplomb.
After that wildly extemporaneous ride, the highly cerebral and carefully constructed Musica Ricercata (“Researched Music”) by the Translyvanian contemporary composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) was as deliberate as the Beethoven was spontaneous. Ligeti crafts a series of eleven brief pieces, the first of which utilizes only two different tones; the second, a total of three, and so on, until a final fugue that encompasses the entire diatonic scale. Like the Beethoven, this composition features a dizzying number of contrasts, as the young Ligeti sought to develop his own musical dialect. The listeners’ ears are tickled with music that ranges from whimsical to jazzy to angular to shimmering to propulsive to caustic, with general approachability increasing with the number of pitches. The first few minimalist sections bring to mind abstract expressionists of the time, such as Mark Rothko; the penultimate piece was quite reminiscent of the music of Alberto Ginastera. Le deftly handled this physically and intellectually demanding music with focused playing and unwavering concentration, drawing us into Ligeti’s multi-hued soundscape with a spell-binding rendition.
The second half of the program found us back in more familiar territory. The Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) were penned when the composer was well into middle age and are the ultimate in lush, passionate Romanticism. These mature works are in equal parts virtuosic and lyrical, with an introspective bent that plumbs psychological depths. For the sunny and extroverted Le, this might not have seemed a particularly good fit, but she managed a convincing rendition. No. 1 sounded just a skosh rushed; in the second, Le coaxed some achingly sweet tones from the growly Steinway. To these ears it also sounded as if the music didn’t quite breathe enough, resulting in a bit of opacity. In her introductory remarks, Le likened this piece to “eating rich chocolate cake”; guess this must be of the flourless variety!
The juiciest was saved for last. If the Brahms can be likened to a treacly dessert, Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (“Wanderer”) is more like a full four-course meal at a five-star restaurant. This massive pianistic tour de force takes the listener on an epic journey, scaling windswept mountains and sweeping through verdant meadows in search of fulfillment. Alexandria quoted a salient line from Der Wanderer, the song from which the piece is derived: “Wherever you are not, there is happiness.” Le was an excellent and savvy tour guide, navigating through great forests of notes and coming through unscathed. She certainly had the chops to handle this incredibly challenging music, though not without the inclusion of a few notes that weren’t in the score (In all fairness, even Schubert himself said he couldn’t play the bloody piece properly.) In addition, Le’s phrasing could have been a bit rounder, and perhaps a tad more nuanced. But I quibble. (Also from the Quibble Corner: the tapping of Le’s hard-soled shoe on the damper pedal proved to be somewhat distracting at times.) But let’s not lose sight of the fact: overall, it was a truly exhilarating journey. Le did herself proud and was rewarded with a well-deserved standing-O.
We were treated to one encore: Alberto Ginastera’s Dance No. 2 (“Dance of the Beautiful Maiden”) from his Danzas Argentinas, which made for a piquant palate-cleanser.
Alexandria Le is a warm, animated, outgoing, confident, hypertalented young pianist whose greatest asset is her incomparable power to communicate; in short, the quintessential musical ambassador for Pro Musicis. In her opening remarks, Le mentioned her desire to take audiences on a journey, and she certainly did just that, magically transporting us from snowy Cambridge to sunnier climes. Saint Francis no doubt would have approved.