The organizer of the Piano Plus series, which graces the Town of Olive Library in the hamlet of West Shokan, NY, is a teacher and composer who has the benefit of many musical contacts. George Tsontakis has been ensconced at Bard College long enough to have made a lot of musical friends, some of whom help bolster his roster. As a fine example, he brought recently retired composer and pianist John Halle to the concert on May 13th, along with Halle’s string-playing wife and son. Among other works, he offered a sort of jazz suite referring to several pianists who composer, pianist, and jazz afficionado Joan Tower had heard in their primes. Apparently she had been alerted, because Tower made the trek across the river to attend.
Halle mentioning that during his enforced pandemic isolation he had followed Schumann’s advice “to make The Well-Tempered Clavier our daily bread.” Then he opened with the first three Preludes and Fugues from the WTC to a mixed success. Halle sounded a bit insecure in this music, and he muddied the easy first set particularly with an excess of sustaining pedal. Things then get harder fast. He didn’t impress us with finished technique, but Halle has a composer’s ear, and he made up for the lack of polish with insight.
After this, Halle moved into the third stream, blending jazz and classical styles, and here his piano technique became far more confident, actually rather impressive. His My Standards: Demolished, Constructed and Obliterated consists of pop tunes beloved by jazz performers, but his transformations veer in and out of jazz styles into contemporary “classical” piano. In the movement Towerology he successfully imitated the playing of famous jazz pianists. In two contemporary ragtime pieces, Rozology and Bookend, he called on the services of his superb violinist and violist wife Marka Gustavsson, once a member of the legendary Colorado Quartet, currently with the Manhattan Quartet. These pieces seemed somewhat influenced by the ragtime revival composer William Bolcom, about the best influence one could have in this music. He also roped in his obviously talented bassist son Ben Halle, who played like someone with a future. (He’s 17.)
I had great fun with the concluding number, Richard Rogers’s “You Took Advantage of Me,” which started out in jazz piano idiom and gradually drew away into the contemporary realm. But then it returned to traditional style, at which point Laura Diffendorfer walked out of the audience and started to sing. Her voice is so small it could have used a microphone even in the intimate Olive Library auditorium, but she sings like an angel.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.