Who is Frederic Chiu? Attending his Boston debut last night could serve as a starter for answering that question. He’s youngish and sports a pony tail. His idea of pianism seems to come out of one of those generations of high-powered, high-speed rock. He’s also an individual unafraid to put the pedal to the metal and is at home before the critical and knowledgeable audience at the Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Will someone please tell me then, why the hoots, hollers, and blares of applause for an encore?
His reason for playing the program that he did was to give us a lesson, teach us about the piano that “ranks among the most influential inventions in human history, on a level with the printing press and the Internet.” Fascinating as this all sounds, his commentaries shed no light on his somewhat far out yet possibly credible assumption. In fact, much of what he said came from out of his “Program Notes.” Chiu, who is very relaxed when speaking, tends to place an “uh” or “umm” between every phrase.
It was his stated intent that we were to learn more about how Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, and Prokofiev dramatically altered the course of piano technique and expression after Mozart and Beethoven. Chiu’s programming might have done the trick; it was his playing that ran extreme interference. His individualistic tactics, that were for the most part considerably limited, and very possibly self-imposed, smeared these four composers’ distinctive voices together with overwhelming decibels, piercing, pulsating melodic designs, mushy textures from too much legato and pedaling, and overall, little variation, little detail, virtually no subtleties.
But yes, he can play faster and louder than most anyone else. Prokofiev’s Toccata, op. 11, especially at the end, was a barnburner in terms of sheer acrobatics and extreme virtuosity. The opening of Debussy’s Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells through the leaves) was most promising, but not long after the softened whole-tone undulations, bells stabbed the air. An extraordinary effect occurred at the piece’s close when Chiu suddenly reduced his piano roaring to the lightest almost faintest of touches, a huge vacuum resulting.
Along with the Debussy and Prokofiev were six Chopin Études, Une barque sur l’ocean of Ravel and three pieces from Suite from Lieutenant Kijé arranged expertly and effectively for piano by Chiu.
Liszt’s piano transcription of Beethoven’s fifth symphony took up the second half of the evening’s concert. Chiu’s fast tempos and more marked contrasts kept the famous piano version moving along. Chiu told us it was Liszt and the piano that popularized the work after Beethoven’s death. Chiu also told us that Liszt kept a second piano close by to back up the first when its strings or hammers broke. Today’s pianos can take such a beating, “So it is not so much will the piano survive, but will the pianist!”
The encore was Chiu’s piano arrangement of Bach’s aria “Erbarme dich” (for alto, violino obligato and basso continuo) from the St. Matthew Passion. Little to no rock, but a jazz notion of playing came over the Bach. A steady left hand beat against improvisatory webs of line and harmony intrigued and could be likened to, say, a Bill Evans. Similar to the rest of Chiu’s inauspicious search which we experienced, the youngish individualist went looking for a new voice with which to speak the old classics. For this comes one big solid vote from me.
Was I any better informed from having heard him play and speak? Yes and no, but I did not take to his unabashed bombastic conceptions.