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Buzz, Tweet, Meow, Hiss on the 88s

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Hsiang John Tu (file photo)

How many piano recitals have you heard with not just novelty but also real freshness? Ones which omit Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, and offer up Messiaen, Bolcom, and Cowell?

Wednesday night at NEC’s bright new Burnes Hall in the Student Life Center  (it’s also chilly, so bring a sweater), Taiwan-born Juilliard piano DMA Hsiang John Tu romped his way through “Animal Style,” a menagerie of small pieces inspired nominally, and sometimes sonically, by the animal kingdom. It was the first performance in this flat-floored, 100-seat shoebox rehearsal and performance space for Cathy Chan’s Chinese Performing Arts Foundation 15-concert summer series, after years of concerts with residencies at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick (story here).

Tu has charm as a speaker, introducing the dozen-and-a-half works offhandedly. His mien is generally beatific. He began with Godowsky’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’s “Swan,” then Debussy’s “Goldfish,” Schumann’s “Vogel als Prophet,” and Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes,” all played with impeccable technique. Sweep, delicacy, shapeliness seemed of lesser interest to the artist this evening; his online performances show somewhat more care and sculpting.

Part of this was surely due to the somewhat hard-surfaced room (do not sit close), though not all. Even as the playing approached loveliness — it can hardly be otherwise in the Schumann and the Ravel — nearly every embellishment, and there are a lot of them, got over-emphasized.

Not until Messiaen’s “La Colombe” and especially the lengthier “Le Loriot” did musicality take wing, as both pieces fluttered with new touches of featheriness, in the latter trilly things flitting among the grave mini-chorales. Warming to the occasion, the instrument, and the room, then, along with some general settling-in, probably played a part in conceptualizations and long views that we had not quite heard before. While Tu is recording the complete Debussy piano works, I might urge him to become a Messiaen aficionado and promoter — after studying how Yvonne Loriod’s (Mme Messiaen) touch makes “Golden Oriole” and its companions into an extension of Debussy.

Ravel’s “Noctuelles” did receive smooth shaping. Bartok’s spiky piano pieces cannot fail and Tu’s thus far spiky way gave percussive life to “From the Diary of a Fly,” the popular, randomly creatured “Night’s Music,” and the long, wildly challenging “The Chase.” The last presented no difficulties for the musician, reaching the high point of the first half. Nor did the preceding Bartokian “Butterflies, hummingbirds” of William Bolcom vex Tu in any way, although others have savored more of its rippling Vienna II flavors. Why the heck is Bolcom not a regular on piano recitals, especially encores?

Granados’s “Maiden and the Nightingale” featured more pianissimo more often than we had heard earlier, but Tu’s phrasing again sounded bald and his decorations tended to the harsh. Liszt’s “St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds” showed moments of grandeur yet was more a series of episodic effects than a sermon with the birds responding. A Liszt pianist Tu is not. (His online Liszt doesn’t contradict this; my verdict may partly have to do with Tu’s taste for sparse pedaling.)

Then began good things.

Villa-Lobos’s “Little Lead Bull” positively romped, even with slightly stiff legs. Cowell’s Blake tribute “Tiger,” with its manic clusters (to steal from Wikipedia) formed by full-forearm (believe it or not) lines, absolutely should be part of the competition repertory, just like a Schubert Impromptu or a Brahms concerto. Tu dispatched it brilliantly, manically, without taming of self or beast, and his flexor carpi radialis accuracy was uncanny. While I suppose “Tiger” may now be the rarity Tu mentioned before removing his coat and tie and rolling up his sleeves, Cowell’s prolific music was certainly heard onstage 65 years or so ago. The spare-praising Virgil Thomson said then that the composer “covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer. His experiments … [t]oday are the Bible of the young and still, to the conservatives, ‘advanced’.” (For some reason even the Springfield Ohio Symphony programed the avant-gardist back when: as a child I once asked my mother why she was putting her mixing bowls and sundry spoons into a bag, and she replied that as a board member she had volunteered to take them downtown to Memorial Hall to help with the Cowell symphony weekend rehearsals.)

Burnes Hall (file photo)

From strength to strength: Two Bolcom rags, yet another insufficiently mined vein, closed the program. Perhaps more could have been done with the rhythm of “Tabby Cat Walk,” and it was a rather loud tabby. But the timing was acceptably ragged and Tu has the beat.

To the final listed piece, Bolcom’s virtuosic “The Serpent’s Kiss,” the pianist brought both aplomb and panache, with a newly appreciated controlled energy. The audience arose instantly at its conclusion. Tu had journeyed far on this nature walk.

Before the recital, at least two program-scrutinizing attendees wondered where “Flight of the Bumblebee” was, and so it came to pass that Rimsky-Korsakov was satisfactorily honored by the encore.

Beyond Hsiang John Tu’s abundant chops, program wit, and stage presence, I would suggest he add more lightness and elegance, starting next month in his new gig as assistant professor of piano at Virginia Tech.

Click HERE for a listing of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts’ ambitious series which runs through August 24th.

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

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