IN: Reviews

Two-Piano Extravaganza Wows Tufts


Young professional pianists Alice Chenyang Xu (who played in all the selections) and her husband Miles Fellenberg (in most of them) joined their honored and well-traveled teachers in a long, varied, and exciting program. The enthusiastic audience of about 120 in Distler Auditorium didn’t mind the acoustical inequity of a 9-foot Steinway with the top removed paired with a 7-footer with the top raised; the players adjusted accordingly, sometimes repositioning the instruments.

Three rags from William Bolcom’s The Garden of Eden, arranged for two pianos from the better-known solo-piano version, came across with handsome brilliance and upper-register doubling that is characteristic of the genre. “The Eternal Feminine,” especially affecting in its harmony and memorable tune, returned at the very end of the third piece, “The Serpent’s Kiss,” with the score indicating “whistle or play,” but Xu whimsically resorted to a melodica, which proved just as effective. The elegantly detailed printed program had one error: Bolcom was born in 1938, not 1975.

Meng-Chieh Liu, well beloved as chamber musician and soloist, know to readers from many reviews on these pages, and currently teaching at NEC, joined Chenyang Xu, a D.M.A. candidate at NEC, in Mozart’s Fugue in C Minor for two pianos, K. 426 for a briskly expressive reading — Mozart in a contrapuntally complex, stile antico mode, with a rhythmic subject he varied later in the Kyrie of his K. 626 Requiem.

Xu and Fellenberg offering of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole of 1908 in the composer’s own four-hands version for one piano, showed how refreshing it could be to hear this very familiar concert spectacular stripped of orchestral color, with all of the dazzling harmony and interior voice-leading made clear; the pianists gave these special care in the Prélude à la nuit and Habañera (1895), and added a fine rubato to the Malagueña in between, finishing the Feria with clattering bravura. They followed it up with a Wizard of Oz Fantasy, a medley after Harold Arlen and Herbert Stothart, including the favorites “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” though many of the younger audience seemed not to know them.

An elaborate setting-up of four microphones for two movements from George Crumb’s Zeitgeist, for two amplified pianos prolonged the intermission; the successful resulting sound delicately echoed and reverberated without being either annoying or eerie. “Two Harlequins” featured spaced flicks, graces, bird calls à la Messiaen, and mostly major thirds, dialoguing in an amiable post-Webern manner; “Monochord” worked in a low B-flat octave with reinforced overtones, repeated, and buffered with extensive inside-the-piano activity, including rubbed strings. Xu and Fellenberg played with music racks removed and iPads carefully poised within.

Xu joined the estimable Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, director of the Professional Piano Trio Training Program and coordinator of Piano Chamber Music at NEC, for four of Schumann’s Canonic Studies, op. 56, for pedal piano, in Debussy’s arrangement for two pianos — the arrangement makes it possible to differentiate the canonic parts spatially. These lovely pieces with loving melodic lines took Schumann’s markings at his word, including “mit innigem Ausdruck.” The performance was thoroughly affectionate.

Xu then gave us a dazzling solo, of Ravel’s orchestral eruption La valse in the composer’s own effective and surprisingly Viennese arrangement; Ravel’s also wrote a two-piano version. Xu faced its huge technical difficulty without batting an eye, and with especially intelligent shaping of the massive keyboard sound. The audience recalled her twice.

All eight hands combined for the comic finale, Galop-Marche, a stunt requiring three benches. Albert Lavignac (1846-1916), the composer, may be familiar as the compiler of the detested series of melody books in five clefs, Solfège des solfèges, that we all studied at Longy School and elsewhere 70 years ago. A galop, perhaps, is faster than a march, but slower than a polka; one can’t be certain. But the fun was not to be denied, especially when all four pianists were playing scales, and when the music fell off the rack and onto the keyboard, producing a situation familiar to every pianist, and a providing a bright ending to a sparkling evening.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Sound like a really fun concert ! Why the piano situation there @ Tufts ? Budget issues for the Fine Arts there ?

    Comment by G. M. — March 6, 2023 at 4:50 pm

  2. The smaller grand is one of a pair donated for the Alumnae Hall about 25 years ago, before Distler Auditorium was built (2007). The full-size concert grand came when Distler was dedicated, with offstage storage for only one of its size. I’m not sure what will be brought together for the next performance of Les noces, already performed twice at Tufts in Cohen Auditorium, a larger but acoustically inferior hall.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — March 7, 2023 at 9:47 am

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