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Walnut Hills Festival Opens Grandly


Nicholas Kitchen Discussing Computers and Music (A. Jaffee photo)Photo)
Nicholas Kitchen Discussing Computers and Music (A. Jaffee photo)Photo)

A devoted fan of violinist Nicholas Kitchen, I grabbed the chance to hear him play in a violin and piano recital on Monday night on the 25th Annual Music Festival at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick. The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts (July 21-August 14) event in the mid-size Boswell Recital Hall, featured Kitchen and pianist Pi-Hsien Chen in a remarkable concert to a full-house of mostly students.

Some of the best Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concerts I heard over the past years have introduced me to some of the best musicians I never knew about. Each person, or ensemble, has turned out to be a most pleasant surprise, and the same held last night. Pianist Pi-Hsien Chen, who was born in Taiwan and who lived in Cologne from the age of nine, worked with composers Boulez, Stockhausen, Kurtág, Cage, and Carter, has established herself as a champion of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Bach (her Goldberg Variations were on sale at the concert next to her Boulez and Mozart CDs. She won some serious new music competitions, as well as

So, it came as no real surprise to hear Chen give a stunning performance of Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25 (1921-1923) that opened the program. The evening felt pleasantly like a Hauskonzert. We were seated just a few feet from the Steinway grand, and the physical intimacy lent itself to extra concentration. Borrowing its titles from the Baroque suite, its five movements are models of brevity. I am hardly a Schoenberg or Boulez expert, but Chen offered this audience such a stunning and passionate introduction to these composers that I immediately decided I needed to get more acquainted with their piano music. She was that good.

The two movement Mozart’s Sonata in E Minor for Piano and Violin (Paris 1778) is very close to my heart. I recall my husband teaching it to his viola students, and later, recall trying to work out a harp part for it (It was too chromatic, alas). I love this sonata, and loved this performance. Of course, being right on top of the piano, I heard more of it than, perhaps, usual, but Chen’s playing was strikingly colorful and exciting, and the duo played it with real Mozartian elegance.

Kitchen read his part from a laptop on a music stand, as he does when he wears his Borromeo Quartet hat. (They have three concerts coming up at the Gardner Museum, starting this coming Sunday, and continuing on August 7th and 14th. In each concert, 8 of Bach’s keyboard Preludes and Fugues will be performed (in Kitchen’s arrangements) along with a Beethoven Op. 59 quartet, and on each, a quartet by Ligeti, Ravel, and Ades).

Pi-Hsien-Chen Pi-hsien Chen (Markus Boysen photo)
Pi-Hsien-Chen Pi-hsien Chen (Markus Boysen photo)

Pierre Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata (1962) is a landmark work in which Boulez ask the performer to choose the order of the movements and their subsections. Intended to consist of five ‘formants’ or movement, only two exist in full and a third has been published in an incomplete state. Chen showed us the enormous score, with one movement having staves printed in red and green (Christmas in July?), and said she’d be playing four of the eight pages. Most interesting was her showing the use of pedal for sustaining certain notes while letting go of other notes, a technique used by Stockhausen. Chen’s laser-like performance was thrilling to hear- and to watch. I was in awe from beginning to end. She is a great artist.

After intermission, Kitchen played the Adagio and Fugue from Bach’s G Minor Sonata for Solo Violin, and it was sublime. I would have happily heard the whole sonata, but more was ahead, and my head was already a bit music-saturated. Yet, the indefatigable duo then launched into a gorgeous Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78, and gave a remarkably touching performance. Both performers were on top of their very impressive game, and it was a privilege to hear them in such an intimate setting.

Luminaries galore will show up to give master classes and concerts at Walnut Hill through August 13th; it’s well worth getting to Natick to hear them. [Details here]

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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