in: Reviews

October 20, 2013

Soyeon Kate Lee Lights Up Gardner

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Soyeon Kate Lee (file photo)

Soyeon Kate Lee (file photo)

The Korean-born, American-trained pianist Soyeon Kate Lee is developing rapidly as a seasoned performer with personal charm and musical intelligence, both of which were on display Sunday in a challenging program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

It is a rare solo musician who is comfortable chatting with an audience about the background and aims of an upcoming piece.  Dressed in an elegant strapless black gown, Lee called upon her big personality and her sense of humor to talk to us with supreme confidence and wit.

Still building her professional career, she has performed in solo recitals and with several major orchestras in the United States, Europe and Asia. I would expect to hear much more of her.

In the Gardner’s four-level cube, Lee took her place in the open center, laughing, “I don’t know where to bow.” When she hit the keyboard the laughter stopped.

Her reading of the Janáček sonata On the Street, a homage to a worker who was bayonetted during a protest demonstration in Brno in 1905, set the stage. She delivered an anguished, moody first section, titled “The Presentiment”. In the second section, “Death”, she drew on deep emotions that were mirrored in her body language and facial contortions. Clearly her sensitive interpretation was coming from the same inner source.

She next played a charming set by “one of my favorites”, as she put it, Robert Sirota, former Director of Boston University’s School of Music. Mixed Emotions combines dissonant, rhythmically complex passages typical of Sirota’s “angular melodies and tart harmonies”, as one critic has aptly tagged him.  Lee described it as a portrayal of opposite emotions, tenderness and rage, “which are not really that far apart”, she suggested, “… as in when you love him so much you want to kill him.”

Lee reeled off Beethoven Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major Opus 110 with apparent ease from the cantabile opening to the allegro. The closing fugue was notable for its fine balance of the three voices, none of which dominated. Beethoven ends the fugue and returns to the initial arioso before charging forward to a muscular conclusion.  Lee produced a highly polished performance.

She introduced some Scriabin compositions with another brief talk, dating them from his earliest composing years: 11 to 23.  Her five chosen pieces illustrated the development of the Scriabin voice, climaxing in his trademark yearning, questing tone in the Impromptu in B-flat Minor. She is currently preparing a CD of Scriabin works for her fourth Naxos venture.

Beyond doubt, the most sensational piece of the afternoon was the closing selection, Guido Agosti’s transcription of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite”. The three movements, Danse infernale, Berceuse and Finale, concentrate the original ballet music into a rollicking version that, to this critic, has always seemed to top even Stravinsky’s various piano versions.  Lee took on the daunting challenge and left the Gardner crowd incredulous over her overt enthusiasm and her effortless technical fireworks.

Multiple curtain calls brought her back for a much more traditional encore, a calm and quiet Chopin waltz.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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