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Steven Drury’s Latest Excursion


Stephen Drury in file photo
Stephen Drury in file photo

At a solo piano concert with Steven Drury expectations run high and surprises are built in. For starters, we were put on notice: “There will be no break in this evening’s program.” I took that to mean no intermission, but that is not only what Drury had in mind. His 45-minute excursion at Jordan Hall Thursday as part of New England Conservatory’s  “Music: Truth to Power” conceit,  literally ran non-stop with hardly a breath between works of contemporaries Hyla, Czernowin, Rzewski, and Zorn alongside an oeuvre of Chopin. Once again, Drury prevailed, if not through programming alone, then also with extraordinary energy and adventure.

A composition of NEC colleague, Lee Hyla, his Basic Training (1994), written for Drury, “loosely (and not really linearly) traces the development of a pianist from the Neanderthal-like, noise-producing thuds of first contact, through a number of textures and variations, finally achieving something of a sophisticated intimacy with the instrument.”  Loosely and not really linearly, it took something away from the basic idea of primitivism by simply turning to sophistication—a plan that would be too simple for this kind of music. The back-and-forth blasts from the extremes of the piano to the contrasting fragilities mostly in the treble zone rather suggested a generic language and thought of a century past.

Interesting, if not confusing, at least at first, was how Harvard Professor of Music Chaya Czernowin’s much shorter fardanceCLOSE (2012) melded into the Hyla. I thought that the first tinklings of her much shorter piece belonged to Hyla. But when I heard the ensuing bass tremolos, imaginatively created by Drury, who had us feel the felt of the hammers and dampers, the sounds seemed outside the style of Hyla. Gradually, I came to recognize the Czernowin.  There surely will be disagreement over my description of these two composer’s language as “standard.”  So let me quickly add that as the Czernowin progressed, I did find myself in a somewhat different musical state, one not all that far, though, from the Hyla.

And before I realized it, Drury was already several gestures into John Zorn’s Carney (1992).    Zorn’s treasury of time and culture spoke many languages, those of the serial school as well as that of jazz virtuoso Art Tatum. Boogie woogie assertively appeared while the first notes of Tristan and Isolde snuck in. The fun and fast-moving facelifts of Carney, some twelve minutes long, require a humongous share of technical and mental dexterity.  Drury’s playing (all from memory) though made it seem a walk in the park, albeit a bit too furious and anxious one for me. I wanted to savor more the piece’s cartoon soundscape. Having worked with Zorn, Drury might have the last word on this.

Enter Chopin and Ballade No. 1 in G minor (1831) in an uninterrupted Drury state of mind. Brash, objectified structures dominated. Drury’s visionary phrasing of the E-flat major theme was all too fleeting.  Mostly, Drury’s Chopin roared and crunched as did much of his program.  Another line from the program appearing just below the titles of the pieces and their composers, “…all these stories, they come from somewhere…” may help us to understand that understanding can be elusive.

Segue to activist composer Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballad No. 3 (“Down by the Riverside”). Here we hear melody, sometimes complete, sometimes in snatches, dashes of Ives and gospel, and we experience jubilation and humbleness—and Drury at his best.  How perfect to close with this, the last notes trailing off mysteriously into thin air. Steven Drury transformed the Americanism’s in this music, voicing each with his vast experience with sound, both that which is all around us and that of his own instrument of expression, the piano. I would add that in several instances the piano became celeste-like.

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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