While mostly avoiding the sin of pride, pianist Chi Wei Lo wowed his Burnes Hall audience with “Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.” Probing and passionate playing invoked perhaps a little envy, but certainly no wrath. Occasional liberties with rhythm and interpretation from Lo did little to mar a mostly jaw-dropping performance.
In the Friday night concert in the annual Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Festival, Lo created a story-like framework of a narrator visiting seven mountain monuments and finding inscriptions, stories or parables for five of the sins, and a mysterious special guest on the final mountain to seduce our pianist into his final performance of the evening, his best of the lot, by far. Lo presented a newly commissioned painting for each sin.
For Wrath, Lo abbreviated the Cain and Abel story, and opened the Liszt Totentanz (Dance of Death) with massive, thudding chords, almost obscuring the Dies Irae theme which becomes the near exhaustive subject of a number of variations.
No argument with that interpretaion, because we’d get our ears waxed full of that theme over the next 10 minutes, interspersed with a sonic display of Liszt’s full vocabulary of ultra-Romantic pyrotechnics. Lo’s predominately brutal, loud, wet, and angry Liszt, dispensed mini-tantrums of showy, virtuosic pianism every few seconds, though at times lush, and poignantly lyrical interludes intervened. Lo could clearly do whatever he wanted at the piano. Would that he had wanted to do a little less in the way of his searching, probing, ultra-stretching of the musical material, and a little more in the way of a disciplined rhythmic approach to the music. Then again, Lo’s playing was unapologetically Lisztian, sinfully so. If you were craving Mozart, you should have been elsewhere.
With 10 minutes of bludgeoning, one little theme (as the music requires) in variation format, more rhythmic evenness might have served to unify structure, and move the work forward. Structurally, this was all a bit too loose, too probing, particularly in the march-like sections, and especially in the fugue variation.
For Sloth, Lo offered his arrangement of Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), considerably shorter, thankfully, than the usual 10-minute versions, and, curiously, lacking many of the scale-lines, ascending and descending to the note “A.” But the overall effect, that of the repeated inverted triads in “bell” sounds with additional bell sounds interspersed above and below, at a painfully slow pace, resulted in something between sweet but irksome meditation (as in: when will this end?), and recognition of what happened when the opening movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata partnered with the most annoying pop tune ever written, “Music Box Dancer,” to create this weird spawn. Sorry, not at all a fan, but maybe that’s what this is about: a study in patience, like listening to paint dry. Excellent piano playing, though, regardless, Lo caressing the keys but with quick strokes to produce beautiful sounds. An oddly excellent choice to represent Sloth. So happy to move on to lust…
…which came in the form of Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 10, Appassionato. Lo produced undulating cascades of sound and color, sometimes caressing and even rapturous. But once again, he stretched the musical material, pushing and pulling and pedaling too much for my tastes. But I suppose a lustful interpretation calls for considerable pushing and pulling.
Debussy’s Prelude: La Puerta Del Vino: (Wine Gate) embodied Gluttony. Lo’s incessant, at times near violent take, with the habanera rhythm-infused sharp and extra-dotted, gave great pleasure. Unabashed drunkenness, so sensual and alluring.
Envy unfolded in multi-layers with Lo’s Improvisations on Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The work itself is so full of jealously, and a host of related sins, among the puppets. Add audience envy of anyone who can play the piece, on top of which you may layer the audacity of any pianist who would dare to improvise on the work. Shame on you, Lo!
Well, he improvised more introspectively than one might have expected, and with more interesting results. There was no order. Elements, themes, and motives, with bitonality, emerged then disappeared. Much cutting and pasting, in tribute to the composer. Lo played with appropriately brittle, bright, and brilliant sounds at times, but also with jazziness, and he couldn’t resist bringing back the Dies Irae theme. Stravinsky would have been proud. Not until the end did we hear the ballet’s opening.
While we were clued-in to improvisation for the Stravinsky, the improv in Ornette Coelmnan’s tune, “Law Years” (Greed), was only implied. This was a stunner.
I tried to study up on this piece. Not easy. So many versions, worlds apart, but all built around a great little tune and harmonic plan. Lo indeed gave us something to behold, with as much silence as music; that in itself was powerful. Jabs and starts and stops. Disjointed, dissonant, bassy, with rhythmic sparring, thick and thin textures. Lo’s body weaving throughout both sound and silence, clueing us into how much was going on in head even when he was restraining himself from playing. Pretty amazing stuff. All clearly and architecturally based on the original theme, but unlike anything else out there on YouTube. If he were to perform this tomorrow, would it be even remotely the same?
When Lo visited the last monument, the devil himself apparently induced him to tackle Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, “Black Mass.” Why does it represent Pride? I guess if you could play it, you’d be damn proud, too.
Lo’s Scriabin sparkled and glittered. Nervy, cerebral, passionate, mysterious and sensual. Flowing, aloft, and at the same time, grounded. All that probing, searching, that seemed (to me) too prominent in the Liszt pieces on this program, felt wonderful and appropriate here. Fabulous concentration from this young artist.
I’m proud of Lo in a wrathful sort of way. Envious, too, of course. I lust for his musical prowess, his ability to improvise, but I’m far too slothful to go to the piano even to attempt to try and figure out how he did this. Nor do I know how I would represent the sins musically. It would surely be easier just to continue submitting to those sinful impulses.
Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.