in: Reviews

September 22, 2012

Pianist Niu Niu’s Disconcerting Boston Debut

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At 8:10 pm Friday evening, the 8:00 concert was underway with a surprise: an unannounced performance by violinist Nicholas Kitchen of Bach’s Chaconne, its score projected on a screen. At 8:25, we were lectured to by one of the founding members of the fledgling Artemisia Foundation, dedicated to promoting the careers of young pianists. A video completed the introduction. The advertised event, “Niu Niu in Recital,” didn’t actually begin until 8:35. The 15-year old boy played nonstop Scarlatti, Beethoven, Wagner, and Liszt, followed by three encores. There was no doubt that the audience, filling upwards of a third of Jordan Hall, was enraptured. I was not.

Last night’s recital marked Niu Niu’s North American debut. Niu Niu, whose real name is Zhang Shengliang, got his nickname “little ox” because he was born in the year of the ox. He first sat at a piano at age three, studying with his father. At age 10, he studied under the guidance of the Taiwanese pianist Hung-Kuan Chen in Shanghai, and now he and his family are in Boston, where he is a scholarship student at the Walnut Hill School. The youngest pianist ever contracted to EMI Music in China, he has performed with Lang Lang. In addition, internationally renowned pianist Paul Badura-Skoda is quoted in the evening’s program as saying, “Here is a great talent in the making, perhaps one of the great interpreters of the future.”

Here, it might be useful to make a connection between student and teacher. “He could play with poetic insight — he could also erupt into an almost terrifying overdrive. Now there is the repose and the forces that have been brought into complimentary [sic] harmony.” This is what Richard Dyer wrote in The Boston Globe of a performance by Hung-Kuan Chen. To me, his student Niu Niu mirrors in ways his teacher’s early playing as described by Dyer.

Poetic insight seldom appeared and when it did, it did so only fleetingly. Scorching the Steinway, the young technical whiz kid showed little interest or understanding of repose. Nor did the opening movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, “Appassionata,” contain any suspense, any anticipation. Much of the same things happened in the Andante con moto, expressivity giving way to abstractness. The Allegro ma non troppo — Presto zipped by prestissimo-plus in “terrifying overdrive,” accenting turned to jabbing. Prodigies do usually wow us with virtuosity. Niu Niu is no exception. The “little ox” can play as big and fast as anyone.

But what would Ludwig van Beethoven say of it all? Liszt? Aspiring pianists would envy such technical command as this wunderkind displayed. Perspicacity is to be expected as Niu Niu matures. Some of us attending the concert would query, is this long tie with the same teacher a healthy one?

Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in E Major, K. 380 and Sonata in A Minor, K. 54 opened the disconcerting concert, as Niu Niu’s searched the Steinway for the composer. As with the “Appassionata,” Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat Major, Mephisto Waltz No.1, and that composer’s piano transcription of “Liebestod” from the closing scene of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde all melded together. Harmony, so key to these giant compositions, also appeared to be of little to no interest. The opening of Mephisto with its piling of fifths like a devil’s violin made me think immediately of the high-rate intensity we know from today’s American master composer, John Adams.

No surprises, though, that the first encore to be played was Liszt’s etude La Campanella, and the second, Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (posthumous). Can anyone identify the third encore? I had to leave moments into the piece.

The event was a presentation of another youngster, the Artemisia Foundation which has taken a rather high-minded approach to its mission.

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.

2 Comments

  1. What an ungenerous, unperceptive, and downright uncharming review. Really, Mr. Patterson, not ONE word of appreciation for this remarkable 15 year old’s uncommonly expressive and assured performance?

    No doubt the outer movements of the ‘Appassionata’ were just too fast, and indeed some of the accents became jabs. Furthermore, the Mephisto Waltz might well have benefited from a more transparent reading, although I thought it was entertainingly played nonetheless. In fact, as we say in jazz, it swung, and that’s high praise.

    Still, the reviewer doesn’t seem to have heard the many, many moments during this recital that were simply stupendous. To my ears, Niu Niu has a tremendous affinity for the music of Liszt, for example, and I found his rendering of the Liebestod superbly paced and at least as affecting as any I’ve ever heard. The third Liebestraum was also quite wonderful, and the Campanella was absolutely scintillating (I liked Niu Niu’s version better than John Ogdon’s). The fact that such mastery was displayed by a 15 year old boggles my mind.

    As for the churlish observation that Niu Niu “showed little interest or understanding of repose”, I couldn’t help wondering if the reviewer stepped out during the Scarlatti sonatas. If anything, Niu Niu was a tad too interested in repose to give a convincing account of these pieces, for which I hear the need and possibility of a gracefully unhindered forward progress throughout.

    Let’s be clear, though: Niu Niu doesn’t sound to my ears like just another prodigy on hyperdrive, being egged on to play everything as fast as possible. Like many young virtuosi, he needs to slow down in places and trust the music more, I think, and I’m confident he will. The thing is, Niu Niu has interesting ideas, and I was left with the impression that he has the potential to develop into a truly great musician and pianist. Just because Badura-Skoda concurs doesn’t mean it isn’t true, either.

    Incidentally, the only thing I found even slightly disconcerting about this evening was the strange way the Artemisia Foundation chose to present it. Granted, having Nicholas Kitchen play the great Chaconne was a surprise and a treat, but starting off any recital with the Chaconne, unannounced and cold, doesn’t work very well. Likewise, it was perfectly fine that Artemisia co-founder Tema Blackstone might offer brief introductory remarks about the AF and its purpose, but I found her talk rather long and rambling. Then, just as one was settling in for some piano playing, a short film was screened! Again, if it had been substantial, fine, but the film was something of a commercial for the young artist and the AF, and featured interviews with Blackstone appearing to be dressed in Colonial garb before a wood hearth. This stuff was just a heartbeat shy of SNL, and more than a few in the audience were probably like me, thinking ‘wtf?’.

    Still, this was quite a memorable evening, even featuring a dear cameo from my neighbor Emma Watson. Mr. Patterson notwithstanding, I’ve taken care to save my ticket and program from Niu Niu’s debut, which might be of interest to piano lovers someday soon.

    Comment by nimitta — September 23, 2012 at 3:44 pm

  2. One more thing: the slap at Niu Niu’s teacher Hung-Kuan Chen was uncalled for. HKC is an outstanding pianist, and should be warmly commended for his work with Niu Niu to this point. Don’t worry, Mr. Patterson, I imagine Niu Niu will outgrow his teacher in time, as all great artists do.

    Comment by nimitta — September 23, 2012 at 3:51 pm

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