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Illuminations of Messiaen from Emerging Pianist


Daniel Parker (MIT photo)
Daniel Parker (MIT photo)

A one-time student of Messiaen myself, I wanted to hear what emerging pianist Daniel Parker would do with the maîtreser. After but a few measures, I was hooked on Parker’s way with birdcalls and just about everything else Messiaenic. His approach to another “atonal” work, a Scriabin sonata, caught up with popular contemporary in-the-moment thinking. While Parker nipped at the expressive edges of a Haydn sonata, the young pianist’s enviable keyboard virtuosity underestimated the poetic side of Chopin’s etudes.

It turns out that Daniel Parker is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology majoring in music. Appearing Wednesday evening at Killian Hall, he gave his Emerson Fellowship Solo Recital under the auspices of the MIT Music Department. A native of Johnson City, New York, he was largely self-taught in the classical style until high school. He has since studied with David Deveau and currently studies with Sergey Schepkin.

Programs were at a premium given an unexpected strong showing. That is why Parker took to announcing the pieces, and that is where we learned of his take on Messiaen and Scriabin as being “atonal.” Parker’s childhood interest in jazz piano also offers some insight into his playing of these moderns.

Nearly flawless in Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI/32 by Haydn, the serious, young pianist seemed at his most natural in the less complex yet drama demanding Finale: Presto. In zipping tempo, he exerted tight control of repeated notes and imitations. More so, his fingers embroidered the recurrent silences within the movement into the dramatic fabric, not just momentary rouses.

The receding phrase end to the bold opening theme of the Allegro moderato left me wanting more differentiation. Overlooked deceptive cadences, finely blurred scalar work, and other such important details tended to Parker’s generalizing Haydn’s musical speech. In the Menuet, though, phrases with light staccatos flickered in a rollicking character.

Percussiveness and charm that have become determinative factors in the performance of Olivier Messiaen’s piano music were only an undercurrent to Parker’s extremely ravishing performance of Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, “Little sketches of birds” (1985). The pianist’s unique excursion became absolutely clear only moments into the first sketch, Le rouge gorge, where this “Robin” sang warmly, articulately. The stark scenery of strong chordal passages each terminating with a mild harmony all against the emphatic calls of Le merle noir, “Blackbird” could not have been more illuminated than in Parker’s vision. Parker’s calls and answers of La Grive musicienne, “Song Thrush” turned almost into human speech, yet voiced with highly melodious contours. The concluding “Skylark” was completely filled with a joyous and most decipherable clatter. The attractive voicings made of Messiaen’s French harmonies may well have been cultivated through the pianist’s passion for jazz. Parker should record these pieces.

Interestingly, where the Haydn sonata was less specific in its iteration, the opposite occurred in Sonata No. 10, Op 70 (1913) of Alexander Scriabin. That unrelenting on-the-brink of realization—or revelation—surfaced at times as terror and at times as triumph. Mystical Scriabin was decoded. However, while Parker evidenced pianistic control everywhere, the fact that the work seemed quite easy for him seized singular and positive attention.

All twelve of Chopin’s Études, Op. 25 further feted Parker’s prodigiousness. As with the case of most of the etudes, the 11th, which most of us know as the “Winter Wind,” blew in more like a powerful headwind with little noticeable letup. Like the composer’s waltzes and mazurkas which transcend the dance, his etudes imply more than exercising. Toward the latter end, Parker unleashed a real flair for Chopin’s unexpected endings that bring imaginative closes to a good number of the etudes. From the fifth etude with its brief Spanish sounding cadence to the more extended coda-like finishes, Parker delivered with top-notch, impromptu generosity.

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. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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  1. Dear David – Thank you for such an illuminating and generous review. Dan is a remarkably talented musician. Teaching him is a joy, and I am very proud of his achievement. I have no doubt that he has a very bright future.

    Comment by Sergey Schepkin — December 18, 2015 at 6:53 pm

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