IN: Reviews

Paired Pianists Perform Panoply


(Chung Cheng photo)

Saturday night’s Williams Hall audience showered huge enthusiasm on the Foundation of Chinese Performing Arts’s offering of the Psychopomp Ensemble, duo pianists Xiaopei Xu and Chi Wei Lo (they had also  appeared at a Foundation summer concert last year in a fine evening of improvisation on serious piano music). This initially skeptical reviewer was converted by Lo’s taste, technique and inventiveness. Currently a doctoral student at NEC in contemporary piano improvisation, he now has a legion of admirers. Lo’s pianistic partner, Xiaopei Xu made her Boston Symphony debut in 2018 with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops. The duo’s eight selections, some in their Psychopomp mode, combined improvisation, re-composing and unaltered portions of the original work. Their plethora of musical styles comprised jazz, pop, blues, third stream, minimalist, and traditional serious music.

Ukrainian Nikolai Kapustin’s Sinfonietta Opus 49 for four hands, an ideal opener came to us unaltered; its pop-jazzy cascade of notes, gave listeners the impression that this could be the overture to a Broadway show. As usual, the composer melded pop and jazz in a traditional vein― something he does perhaps better than any other contemporary. This rompish piece bounded up to us with zest and verve

Frederick Corder arranged Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to a Dance, Opus 65 into delicate and lyrical variations; Lo and Xu interpreted these with taste and sensitivity. The Ravel Introduction and Allegro for Two Pianos sounded properly atmospheric but one missed, in this arrangement, the tonalities of the harp, flute, clarinet and strings in the original orchestration.

Lo’s four-hands arrangement of Smetana’s The Moldau was energetically played but suffered from a too-many-notes syndrome. One thinks this would work more effectively as a two-piano piece with more keyboard space for these players’ impressive virtuosity.

Granados’s The Maiden and the Nightingale, arranged by the late jazz pianist Bill Evans and Psychopomp, felt a bit overloaded with much musical material needing to be integrated (too many cooks!) including Messiaen. More became less.

The pair’s improvisation on Ligeti’s Ricerata No.7 evolved in a suitably hypnotic, minimalist mode but, unlike in the music of Steve Reich, it failed to evolve into a conclusion that made satisfying sense.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Drawing Room Blues and Tonk, which are legendary recordings of improvised pieces by the two jazzmen, roused us with tremendous fun in a bit of transcription artifice much enlivened by the switching of parts and seating arrangements on one piano bench, reminding one of the antics of the  Victor Borge.

Particularly energetic with its ostinato bass, Henry Cowell-like use of the forearm and a Cecil Taylor sound barrage, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, perfectly portrayed the relentless clanging of the machines on the factory floor. Then the machines stopped (because of a famous strike) and Xu and Lo virtually sang the blues.

This evening delivered mostly very promising new directions in pianism as the extremely talented young duo explored some far reaches of musical possibilities. The votaries demanded more and Psychopomp complied with an irresistible Tico Tico (their own arrangment with an homage to Marc-Andre Hamelin’s version). We left with expectations of great things to come from Lo and Xu.

Thomas G Boss has been a musician who composes and plays the piano since the age of five. He studied piano with Leon Tumarkin and composition with Gardner Read and John Goodman.

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