by Sibylle Barrasso
Seldom does one witness a concert so full of freshly inventive surprises as Chi Wei Lo’s piano recital Sunday at NEC’s Williams Hall for the Foundation of Chinese Performing Arts. Lo, a Juilliard graduate and a New England Conservatory doctoral candidate in improvisation. will have a bright future in the field of performance improvisation which he avidly pursues based on what we heard Sunday.
Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, the 21-part evocation of a masked ball portraying a multiplicity of scenes, characters and emotions occupied pride of place in the concert and its entire first half. Lo largely played the numbers in their proper order, though he replaced Paganini, Promenade, and Marche des Davidsbundler contre Les Philistins with his own homages to his teachers Ran Blake and Jerome Lowenthal.
Carnaval provides an ideal canvas for an improviser. As written, it amply demonstrates the mercurial Schumann style so well-suited to isolating individually fleeting moments. In this case, we imagined masked revelers at a fancy dress or costume ball in Italy. Characters based on Schumann’s own lovers and friends also cavorted therein
The individual movements merited and received suitably individual treatments and inspired all manner of in-the-moment additions. Lo opened the subtly melismatic Preamble with beautifully articulated repeated notes. Pierrot followed depicting a playful clownish figure with repeated sprightly grace notes. Then Arlequin arrived with arpeggios, repeated notes, surprising interjections, and musical quotations from Lo— some of them quite 20th century.
Valse Noble added a left-hand melody seamlessly interwoven and climaxed with a few jazzy blue tones. Eusebius (being one of Schumann’s alter egos) arrived mostly unchanged except for repeated doubling octaves in higher registers. Florestan (a second persona of Schumann) being moved along by a passel of low, rumbling tones and big chords, evoked the sunnier side of RS’s personality, contrasting with a dainty ending. Coquette (a flirtatious woman) provide Lo with prime opportunity to vary articulations, with the cakewalk or ragtime style, and jazz-inflected syncopation, seeming to be the most appropriate. One might expect the Papillons movement to sound quietly fluttery, but Lo chose to add and embellish Schumann’s normally silent “Sphinxes” into to bass tremolos unusually disturbing to the butterflies. Few other pianists (through Rachmaninoff originated the idea) have done this, as the score indicates these riddles should be seen and not heard.
Chiarina, Estrelle, and Chopin come closest to Schumann’s heart as they represent Clara Wieck (his wife), Ernestine von Fricken (a romance), and Chopin his admired composing compatriot. Lo rendered Chiarina more tragically, adding more drama with scalar runs and dissonance, including a harsh final chord. He improvised Estrella more contemplatively than the original, perhaps because RS married not her, but rather Clara. A forte concluding chord added a final flash of anger. In Chopin Lo added numerous delicate chromatic runs so typical of the namesake. He quoted the Fantasia-Impromptu and gave Chopin’s First Piano Concerto a winning nod.
The added Jerome Lowenthal and Ran Blake and movements delivered unexpected strokes, very effectively, the latter evoking Blake’s film noirish tendencies and darkly dissonant sonorities, revealing something not only very effective, but also uniquely different in this varied assemblage.
After intermission came Boston composer Tony Schemmer’s Lullaby for Alex, a short, sweet, and soulful contemporary yet somehow timeless miniature. Schemmer approved of the rendition and accepted the audience approbation with gentle pride. This quietly enthralling yet very soothing morsel held and rewarded our attention.
Lo then played his Variations on Awariguli, a Uyghur folk song. with an Asian flavor. The first employs delicately flowing arpeggios. The third is energetic and at times agitated with tremolos. Variation four is Lisztian in its use of bass sonorities interspersed with a shower of high notes as if one is gazing into a deep pool of water while the surface ripples. Another variation features two-handed arpeggios racing across the keyboard a la Chopin etudes. Lo’s speed and accuracy in these figurations delighted us.
D.B. Roumain’s/ ChiWei Lo’s Recomposing Jam came to us as an almost impossibly energetic evocation of Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Concerto and the jazz playing and improvisations of Cecil Taylor. The repeated figurations paired with a strident ostinato at top speed rendering the pianist’s hands a blur. This effort brought shouted bravos.
Lo’s idiomatic yet original take on number XV: Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus (The kiss of the Infant Jesus) from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus), showed yet another successful side of the resourceful performer.
He encored with a Schumann Träumerei (Dreams) reworked with surprising quiet dissonances and echoes of Ran Blake.
In bringing the unexpected to the familiar and also adding fun and good humor…all in the context of great chops and sophisticated artistry, Lo convincingly argued the case that improvisation has a real place in serious music.