Keeping in mind there would be young people as well as adults in attendance Sunday, the Brookline Library Music Association presented pianist John Ferguson in a revitalizing one-hour program hopscotching from this era to that mostly via shorter pieces. Even before an inviting 2:30 start time, the music room upstairs at the Brookline Public Library was already standing-room-only.
Tall and slender with healthy sized hands, John Ferguson took to the seven-foot Steinway with fleet feet, transforming it into an expressive instrument beyond expectation. The further into this unusual program we went, the more of a fairytale it became. Enchanting, yes, fetching, even more so, elevating indeed.
This virtuoso who is something far more sits at the Steinway entirely focused, almost as if in his private music room. He thoroughly eschews any show of bravura. Almost miraculously, he has not gotten caught up in the high-speed, high-powered chase that has become the way of a herd of players these days.
You would meet John Ferguson through his playing, be it Bach, Chopin, Debussy, or Stockhausen. Whatever he played had that Ferguson touch. Lucidity and kindness immediately come to mind. When is the last time you encountered kindness—compassion, gentleness, benevolence, thoughtfulness, and humanity—in a classical music performer.
While Bach’s Contrapunctus IV from Die Kunst der Fuge might have been a bit soft around the edges, there were moments that reminded one of the composer’s supposed words, “I write music to the glory of God and for the recreation of the mind.”
Liszt’s transcription of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony followed Bach. The poetry of structure, of edifice, was visible everywhere. Could this inspiration have come from that body-hugging kind of precision of a German orchestra?
And of all things, on the heels of late Beethoven, there appeared a tiny, fragile prelude of Debussy, Le Canope. Ferguson moved the tempo along, flirted with the treble fineries, and for the harmonies brought a simple luxuriance.
Back to finger-bending proficiency with Chopin’s Etude in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 5, and as far away from the galloping horse effect that comes all too naturally to many aspiring pianists, Ferguson rerouted the short-long rhythms to dryer sounding grounds with gracefulness and a plainer elegance.
Ferguson also was fully unfussy about returning to the piano after a short break; how refreshing—music matters. Again from memory as during his entire program, he launched his fairly diverse crowd of listeners into that four-note chord Stockhausen has the pianist repeat 142 times, then after a long diminuendo, 43 more repetitions, this in Klavierstück IX. With these many repetitions Ferguson created a melting kaleidoscope, so to speak, each of the four notes subtly shifting in amplitude and in overtones. Shocking as it may seem, Ferguson made attractiveness out of darkness and beauty out of sound piling. You could have heard a pin drop, believe it or not!
Another fay of an entry, Radiohead’s “Let Down,” made it onto Ferguson’s refreshing program. The arrangement by Christopher O’Riley for me did not catch onto reality, instead made me think of an inferior Adams’ China Gates. Too much of one key, and those minimalist pitch penchants, finally wore on into tedium. Good, though, that we got to hear this piece.
With Ligeti’s Lescalier du diable, (The Devil’s Staircase) the audience unknowingly took charge, spontaneously breaking into applause seconds into the final chord that is to be held for a minute—yes, that long! The wild flight of syncopations and feverish chromaticism came with a shattering lightness, again, darkness yielding to a scary transparency. Usually fatigued after this nightmare of a piano piece, I felt energized.
And from the touching Brahms Romanze Op. 118, No. 5, more was to come. The middle of the Romanze at first was pastoral greenery, then turned sparkling streams, and lastly to the joy that comes with a brilliant blue sky. Ferguson indeed found something here!
The cogency of Ferguson’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 by Liszt had the audience, now focused very much as Ferguson, loudly saluting this unassuming gem.
True to his form, Ferguson returned unassumingly with a surprising and richly gratifying encore: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Bach’s E Major Violin Partita, “the first movement only.”