in: Reviews

January 31, 2018

Janice Weber High on Vivace

by

Janice Weber (file photo)

From the 1980s on, Janice Weber has made her reputation as a bold pianist exploring often unusual repertory. Tuesday evening in the Piano Masters series at BoCo Berklee’s Seully Hall, in Beethoven, Ornstein, Brahms, and Liszt, that spirit got the better of the faculty member most of the time. Much simply was taken faster than Weber is capable of now: fearless has become heedless.

Of Beethoven’s Opus 31 No. 1, a scamp of a piece, little need be said other than that it seldom cohered at the pace.

Leo Ornstein’s Sonata No. 4, from a century ago, gloms together Debussy and Ravel rippling in cocktail lounges from the future; if Jay Gatsby had been willing to have witty Eastern European ethnic cum Americana mashups as party background music, Ornstein would have been his guy

Weber produced some lovely sound in the Ornstein, its nonstop repeating-chord passages forming themselves by the end into a long, grandly lurching dance. Every amateur is amazed by the feats of retention all good concert pianists exhibit, but for some reason the protracted density of event in the Ornstein left me specifically marveling at the prodigy that is Weber’s brain and memory.

 My BMInt colleague Mark DeVoto adds:

The composer Leo Ornstein (1893-2002) was already forgotten long before he died. His name appeared in books about Modern Music, chiefly as an enfant terrible composer in the 1920s of dissonant piano music featuring tone-clusters. When I was a student at Tanglewood and Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse and Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître were the latest avant-garde thing, When Aaron Copland was a student, 40 years before then, Leo Ornstein was the latest thing, he told us. There was a piece called Danse sauvage, but I never heard it; I did find a second-hand copy of something called À la chinoise, but it actually looked like ethereal clusters, ultra-high-register pp Bartók or Debussy.  His music appeared on no programs or recordings that I encountered, and I thought no more about Leo Ornstein for another 24 years. Then in 1973, at an AMS national meeting in Chicago, I heard a talk by Vivian Perlis, who was then taping interviews with composers for a vast oral-history project; readers may already know her two fascinating volumes of Copland. She had sought out Leo Ornstein, then 80 years old, living on a dairy farm in New Hampshire and still composing. I had then already been teaching in New Hampshire for five years and had never heard from any of my colleagues the slightest inkling that Ornstein was a co-resident in my home state. By then, of course, he had achieved legendary status.  He must have been a very good pianist, but he gradually gave up his concert career for teaching and composing, and eventually faded out of the public awareness completely. But what was the music like?

We got some idea of what Ornstein’s music from Janice Weber’s traversal of his 1918, four-movement Fourth Piano Sonata. Ornstein, who had emigrated to America in 1906 and largely trained in New York, had given the American premiere of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nui (1909).  The Debussy-Ravel harmonic environment of the Sonata was abundantly apparent. The first movement, Moderato con moto, was dominated by a chordal style very close to the second page of Clair de lune, alternating with inverted-ninth harmony and pinch appoggiaturas like those in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. The cluster style that everyone used to talk about, with acciaccaturas (acciaccare, to crush) like what one finds in Cowell or Bartók and even as far back as Scarlatti, didn’t appear — no chords played with fists or palm. The second movement, Semplice, a waltz-sarabande, had a lighter texture and a good deal of charm; the Lento that followed reminded one of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes, with its twitching grace-notes, but there were too many broken chords blurring the sound. The Vivo finale brought out the piano’s heavy artillery, with big chords as in the finale of Ravel’s Trio. There definitely seemed to be too much uniformity of style, texture, and form, and not enough sectional contrast, but because all four movements were relatively short, it was the impressionistic ambience that mattered the most, and not the lack of capacious formal development. One would have preferred a sparer texture, with fewer notes for the kind of sound that was being sought; the same complaint can be leveled at Rachmaninoff, 20 years older than Ornstein but definitely of another age. It’s not inaccurate to call Ornstein a Ukrainian impressionist, though he’s obviously very different from the Russian impressionist Scriabin, nor so far from another Jewish impressionist, the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch. Despite some apparent weaknesses, this lonely Fourth Sonata was definitely interesting, and one wanted to learn more and hear more; Ornstein’s late works, according to the newest references, include his best, written when he was 90.

*  *  *

Attractive and generous moments could be heard in her playing of Brahms’s Opus 118, albeit delivered in a brisk, low-fat, somewhat rough-and-ready style. Likewise the Schubert-Liszt “Hark, hark, the lark” Serenade and Die Rose. Not notably cantabile, perhaps, but uncluttered.

Even in her heyday Weber showed “more panache than allure”, pointed out Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer, who regularly championed her work while noting her go-for-broke decisionmaking. Part of the problem here was the venue: “… that it wasn’t quite as much fun as it should have been was a function not of the performance, but of Seully Hall. Its acoustics may glamorize the plucking of a lute, but this is the least attractive space in the city for a virtuoso piano recital. We know from other contexts that Weber produces a beautiful, ringing sound; here she was working us over, and she showed no mercy”.

The Bellini-Liszt Norma Reminiscences made for a thoroughgoing pummeling. Liszt can get congested in the best of hands, and, yes, the clutter and clatter were aggravated by the room, but like the Beethoven, this big monster had been better replaced. Old fans, I suggest you go listen to Weber’s Ornstein and Liszt work on YouTube and Spotify.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

4 Comments

  1. Since I wasn’t at this concert I have nothing to say about David Moran’s assessment of Janice Weber’s performance, but I do want to take a bit of issue with both David and Mark DeVoto concerning Leo Ornstein and his music.

    Ornstein’s “crazy man” music was mostly all written by the end of the nineteen-teens. Starting with the Cello Sonata #1 (a great piece, btw) he moved away from clusters and free banging to a much more nuanced and emotionally direct style. His Piano Quintet, from 1927, is another masterpiece. You can find a much more appreciative take on Ornstein in the Wikipedia article on him, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Ornstein (though you might question the author’s cred when (s)he says that Ornstein and Cowell were the first “important” composers to use tone clusters, obviously never having heard of Ives or his Concord Sonata).

    You can also hear a great many recordings of Ornstein works on the site maintained by the composer’s son Severo, including an amazing performance by Marc-André Hamelin of “Wild Men’s Dance” and a performance of one of his other famous/infamous early piano pieces, “Suicide on an Airplane.” The audio section is here: http://www.poonhill.com/audio.html. What strikes me as interesting is that with all the clusters and banging, the basic harmonic underpinnings of even these “wild” pieces are essentially tonal.

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 1, 2018 at 12:24 pm

  2. Is anyone confusing Ornstein with George “bad boy” Antheil?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 1, 2018 at 1:31 pm

  3. I certainly wasn’t. You won’t find much Antheil on the Ornstein website.

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 1, 2018 at 5:38 pm

  4. Just a couple of belated comments about the recital…

    It must be difficult to write a review of a performance by a revered local musician. Weber started off badly, blowing some notes about 2 measures into the Beethoven. She looked perplexed when it happened, and I’m conjecturing that self-doubt may be as deadly to a professional as it is to the rest of us. I don’t know if the tempo got away from her after that, or she intended to go at that blistering pace. My Peters edition of the score is marked allegro vivace, but I’ve always thought that the sonata sounded better at a slower pace. I think it’s very premature to conclude that Weber can’t play that rapidly anymore. I still think she can do whatever she wants at the piano, no holds barred.

    By the way, was it my imagination, or did Weber omit the repeat at the beginning of the first movement? It went by so fast, maybe I had a senior moment and missed it.

    The Brahms was a lovely and welcome oasis.

    Regarding the acoustics, Seully is a small space and I don’t think the acoustics differ much from other small spaces. The problem with Seully, I think, is that the piano sits above the audience, and the audience is hearing a lot of what comes off the bottom of the piano’s soundboard, which would tend to mask the percussive quality of the piano and diminish the clarity of the sound. I think you want to sit at the rear of Seully for better sound when there’s a piano being played. I sat towards the front for the first half of the program and the rear for the second half. Weber was playing without the score in front of her, and with no music stand on the piano. The absence of the music stand exposes the pianist to the direct percussion of the hammers, so her perception would have been very different from what we were hearing, and it may be difficult for the pianist to compensate for that, notwithstanding much experience playing and listening in that hall. Maybe that was also a factor.

    Comment by Bob D. — February 12, 2018 at 12:21 pm

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