IN: Reviews

The Fine Balance and Its Inevitable Path


The Piano Department at the New England Conservatory of Music recently concluded the second installment and final installment of “A Fine Balance: Piano Music by Women and Men.”  The curation carefully paired female composers with male counterparts, based on the timbre, character, and theme of the music. Keeping with the unmatched tradition of this series, two young pianists from the preparatory school, joined the festivities in a unique and inspiring partnership at Jordan Hall.        

Clara Schumann and Brahms, a would-be pair if ever there were one, both used the same divine theme from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter. Clara wrote her variation as a gift for Schumann’s 43rd birthday, just one year before he was institutionalized for tertiary syphilis dementia. Brahms wrote his set around the same time, originally dedicating them to Clara. Two distinct pianists, Andrew Chen and Adria Ye, showcased their unique interpretations. Chen’s took a direct and bell-like approach, emphasizing clarity in Clara’s set. His playing brought out the melodic top notes, and the re-harmonization rang out in every corner of the hall. In contrast, Ye’s interpretation of the theme created a distinct dichotomy of sound. Even for experienced concert goers, it was surprising how different two pianists could sound so different on the same instrument, in the same space. Brahms wrote more contrapuntal variations, with varied textures and his signature hemiolas. Throughout the traversal, Ye treated register shifts and harmonies with sensitivity and care, moving us deeply.       

Two four-hand works next paired. Satie’s Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear and a set of three pieces by composer, singer, director, and choreographer Meredith Monk. Despite their seemingly simplistic nature, both sets shared a characteristic of hidden intricacy and understated complexity. In keeping with his trademark irony, Satie’s Pear comprised not three, but seven pieces, none of which had any direct link to the title. Fan and Tushman, both from NEC’s preparatory division, captured Satie’s wit with poise and a youthful lightheartedness that mirrored the composer’s style.           

Ge and Walker put across Meredith Monk’s “Ellis Island,” “Totentanz,” and “Phantom Waltz” with guru-like meditative qualities. The music’s irresistible grooves and simple yet ever-changing patterns enveloped the audience in tranquility. In the final moments of “Phantom Waltz,” Ge’s improvisatory passages on the high end of the piano shattered the eternal calmness, introducing a burst of whimsical and colorful energy.           

After intermission Charles Berofsky essayed Florence Price’s Sonata in E Minor, and Yide Shi took on Charles Griffes’s Piano Sonata, in two magnificent displays of pianism and power; though they shared a similarity in form, their use of modal scales linked them. Price’s implemented folk-like melodies, while Griffes’s modes relied on modes to shape both melodies and harmonies. Berofsky’s grounded and penetrating touch evoked a nostalgic and affectionate second movement, while Shi’s conclusive and unyielding mannerism surrounded the audience with singing melodies and ringing chords, transporting them to a faraway temple.           

Conjoining Tania León’s Ritual with Messiaen’s “Neumes rythmiques” from Quatre Etudes de rythme broke the tonal bubble and showcased a dazzling battle of rhythm, sonority, and unpredictability. Ritual draws inspiration from León’s native Cuba and channels Afro-Caribbean rhythms, combining percussive and rhythmic patterns with classical compositional techniques to create a pioneering work that deserves more frequent performance. Huan Li’s mesmerizing execution lit up the stage. Entirely memorized, Li’s stunning pianism brought forth great shows of impulsiveness and percussiveness.           

“Neumes rythmiques,” one of Messiaen’s four studies, showcases medieval irregular meters and rhythm. Ariel Mo performed the difficult rhythms with elegance and an improvisatory atmosphere, creating an almost effortless sense of ease.

The final folie à deux placed Joan Tower’s Or like a…an Engine, played by Rafe Schaberg, and in the company of Charles Alkan’s “Le chemin de fer, played by Steven Qizhen Wang. A fierce, yet friendly battle of stamina, athleticism, and lyricism ensued. Both Schaberg and Wang delivered jaw-dropping pianism. Schaberg’s runs were thoughtful, delicate, and emotionally charged, while Wang’s glided lightning-fast across the keys, causing the audience to laugh in awe.

Captions clockwise from upper left: Monk, Leon, Messiaen and Griffes.

To find out more about the curation of the program and the development of the piano department at NEC, this reporter sat down with Bruce Brubaker, co-chair of the piano department at NEC. Click HERE.


A doctoral candidate at the NEC in contemporary piano improvisation under Joe Morris and Bruce Brubaker. Chi Wei Lo does standard rep at prize-winning levels, flashmob, improv, and literate programming.

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