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Chiu’s Tactics Smeared Individual Voices


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.

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.

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  1. If I may offer a different perspective:
    I found this recital to be one of the most memorable that I’ve attended in recent times.  I like Chiu for the same reason that I like Russell Sherman: although I disagree with most of his interpretations, he forces you to examine the music in a way that you may not have considered (may not wantedto have considered!) before.  To me this is what makes a great concert- you can go anywhere and hear people playing the notes cleanly and dutifully, occasionally even thoughtfully, which then are sanctioned in stellar, if somewhat dull reviews, but how many classical recitals do you go to where something truly new is attempted? 
    Whether or not Chiu said anything particularly remarkable/well-researched between numbers, the fact that he spoke at all had a noticeable effect on the audience- you could almost see the shoulders in the hall relax and the music really begin to enter people when Chiu began to play.  I found him to be very well spoken, and while there certainly was a didactic purposeto what he was saying, I found that his tonewas completely free of the diadacticism that can sometimes pervade recital speeches.  [For reference I would refer us to the cringe-inducing speeches at the BSO’s Rite of Spring concert in January, where the players addressed the audience as though they were a bunch of visiting schoolchildren].  The reality is, with the current level of music education in this country, that these kinds of recital speeches are necessary for an audience to have any chance of connecting to the music anything beyond “that sounds pretty.” 
    As for the program itself, the “Rolled-Chord” and “Aeolian Harp” etudes were simply marvelous- pearly, crystalline, tone, with an almost miraculous legato for the melody of the rolled-chord etude.  The C# minor etude- yes, it was too fast, yes, it was unclear, yes it was overpedalled… who cares?  It was incredibly exciting.  The Prokofiev Toccata was one of the best performances I’ve ever heard of that fiendishly difficult piece, and to dismiss it with “But yes, Chiu can play faster or louder than most anyone else” is unfair and a little bit condescending.
    As for the Liszt, I didn’t particularly like the piece itself, but again, it forces you to reexamine the Beethoven in a new way, to notice things you may have not noticed before.  The oboe solo in the first movement sounded particularly lonely and forlorn on the piano, and somehow Chiu was able to get the famous drumbbeat transition between the third and fourth movements to work quite well.  The ending was incredibly exciting, with all those repeated instance of the tonic and dominant harmony for pages and pages- the audience was fit to burst at the end. 
    The only part of the concert I really objected to was the erbarme dich encore.  It was played with great soul, but the lines were so unclear that I had no idea what was going on.  I also thought it was a bizarre choice- you want to send your audience out with one of the most sorrowful pieces of music ever written? 
    I attended Chiu’s masterclass the next day and found it equally fascinating.  I was worried that it would be a bit new-agey, and perhaps it was, but it addressed a lot of practical issues in a thoughtful and new way.  At the end of this day, I found Chiu and his performance to be a breath of fresh air, something that our tired profession and worn-out concert halls need badly. 

    Comment by Joe Turbessi — March 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm

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