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Pianist Challenges Himself and Three Colleagues


Pianist Sahun Sam Hong soloed for the first half of his Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concert at NEC’s Williams Hall last night and then invited three colleagues to join him for the world premiere of his piano-quartet transcription of Schumann’s Carnaval to close.

Hong singingly rendered the melody in Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 55 No. 2 while bringing out the beautiful left-hand arpeggios with the rising and descending notes always clearly audible, with subtle interplay obtained between the two hands. The Opus 48 Nocturne starts with a somber funeral march, the middle is a chorale which gradually grows with rumbling octaves in the left hand. Then Chopin brings back the first theme with an agitated accompaniment. Despite the virtuosic demands Hong pianist never lost sight of the nocturnal qualities, reining in the turbulent ending.

Hong’s take on Mozart’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major provided many delights. He placed the composer’s bittersweet phrasing on full display in the first movement, showing a real affinity for style, with crisp and clean articulation, exquisite phrasing, and utterly perfect trills. The second movement finds Mozart at his most playful and joyful, with surprising rests, runs and crescendos which Hong contrasted and underlined with penetrating understanding. In the very fast third movement Hong’s sounded effortless.

Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Handel, which we heard, is not as well-known as his Paganini and Haydn sets. After perhaps a slightly too fast statement of the completely Baroque theme, Hong traversed time―from Baroque to the Classical to the Romantic era―as the 25 variations became ever more virtuosic, culminating in an elaborate fugue. Hong positively mowed down Brahms’s challenges with gifts both digital and intellectual.

Zachary Mowitz, Yuchen LuSahun, Sam Hong, Inmo Yang (Xiaopei Xu photo)

Schumann’s Carnaval [heard a few nights earlier in this series in Chi Wei Lo’s improvising hands HERE] depicts a masked ball populated by his acquaintances and stock characters from Italian comedy. Before hearing Hong’s debuting piano quartet version, one could easily have imagined inviting three partners to the festivities; after all, a set of Russian composers headed by Glazunov had enlarged the work for full orchestra on behalf of Diaghilev in 1910, and others, including Ravel, had transcribed various parts. Last night Hong’s adaptation proved exceedingly successful. Violinist Inmo Yang, cellist Zachary Mowitz, and violist Yuchen Lu joined Hong on stage. The latter should be especially acknowledged for a superb performance with only three-days’ notice.

With strings’ singing tones softening the pianist’s staccato chords, the Préambule strangely conveyed more intimacy than in the piano-solo version. We particularly enjoyed a section where the melody leapt from the exuberant cello to the piano and back again. The sad, love-forlorn Pierrot became even more mournful with the addition of the strings. While Arlequin is an ensemble piece, the piano often leads the way. 

Eusebius represents Schumann’s thoughtful half, and the piano took the melody, with the strings playing sustained notes as accompaniment, adding a lovely intensity. In Floristan (Schumann’s impetuous side), the strings lead, triumphing in a beautiful interplay with each other and the piano. In the highly effective enlargement of Coquette (Flirtatious Girl) Hong took the melody and the strings answered in higher registers, producing a comical effect. The answering Replique proved especially dismissive with the string pizzicatos.

Papillons (Butterflies) found the strings lending a fluttery, organic quality not attainable on the piano. Similarly in the Lettres Dansantes, the string’s sustained, rising crescendos could not be duplicated by a piano, and surprisingly twisted the familiar tune. The trio’s sentimental sustaining added richness and texture, transforming Chiarina (Clara) into a love song. 

For Chopin, not surprisingly, the piano took centerstage with the strings’ long notes receding to subtle accompaniment. In contrast Estrelle contrasted tutti and solo cello back and forth. It was hardly surprising that Hong assigned Paganini largely to the strings―especially the violin―while assigning Aveu (Confession) to himself. As ensemble pieces, Promenade and the Marche des Davidsbundler attained orchestral richness and scope at the close. The audience strongly expressed its gratitude for what should become a useful addition to the piano quartet canon. Hong refused to take a solo bow at the end, signaling his deep appreciation for his colleagues.

Sibylle Barrasso is a long time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe for over ten years.

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