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Deep Keyboard Probing and Virtual Puppetry


Ensemble132* with featured pianist Sahun Sam Hong essayed Beethoven and Stravinsky in Williams Hall last night for the eighth concert of the 2023 Chinese Performing Arts Festival.

15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major “Eroica,” Opus 35, uses a tune which the composer also used in the Finale of the Eroica Symphony and in the ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus. Hong, who won the 2027 Vendome Prize in Verbier, began the set with a thunderous chord, followed by a seemingly endless pause, as if pondering. What follows is magical: single pp notes played in three-octave unison in the bass section, sneaking into the concert hall almost furtively. A huge contrast, only to be interrupted by three emphatic ff notes in B-flat Major. This became the pattern for the variations, those three ff notes interrupting again and again. In Var. 7, these notes become especially angry, going to four instead of three repeats and adding an A flat for dissonance. This piece delights with its drama, which Hong took to the max, his style unique, shaping the melodies to make them boisterous then morphing into delicate (var.5), agitated (var.6), downright rude (var.7), lyric (var.8), rustic (var.9), whimsical (var.11) playful (var.12) Turkish (var.13), melancholic and very sad (var.14), and dignified and elegant (var.15) and building a crescendo to a striking and complicated fugue, encompassing seemingly the entire range of human existence. Life is not always beautiful, and neither are some of these variations, yet others sounded heavenly. The honesty and authenticity of Hong’s interpretation deeply touched our heart, showing his profound insight into the composer, no wonder he received Second Prize in the 2017 International Beethoven Competition Vienna. 

Beethoven wrote his Op. 35 in 1802 as his hearing was failing; one could imagine those repeating ff notes exist as the only sounds he was still capable of hearing.

By the time he finished his last sonata (1822), Beethoven had entered what for him must have been a terrifying realm of silence. For the piano, only the Diabelli Variations and two sets of Bagatelles would follow. Of that two-movement Op. 111 Sonata Thomas Mann famously wrote in “Doctor Faustus”:

Wendell Kretschmar, the town organist and music teacher, sat on his revolving stool, and in a few words brought to an end his lecture on why Beethoven had not written a third movement to op. 111. We had only needed, he said, to hear the piece to answer the question ourselves. A third movement? A new approach? A return after this parting – impossible! It had happened that the sonata had come, in the second, enormous movement, to an end, an end without any return. And when he said ‘the sonata’, he meant not only this one in C minor, but the sonata in general, as a species, as traditional art-form; it itself was here at an end, brought to its end, it had fulfilled its destiny, resolved itself, it took leave – the gesture of farewell of the D G G motif, consoled by the C sharp, was a leave-taking in this sense too, great as the whole piece itself, the farewell of the sonata form.

So often heard, and so deeply discussed, the sonata encourages original interpretations. Hong could produce a formidable, massive tone and an instant later relax into a luscious, ppp. He revealed in the sfzs and never failed to surprise us with his fresh thinking. He excelled in those difficult rhythmic transitions of the second movement, with no hitch or even the slightest hesitation each time the pattern changed. There is also a section with only high notes, a melody and trills in the RH, he also managed to find a melody in the repeating notes in the left hand. Hong returned three times in response to unabated applause.

Hong, noted for his transcriptions, debuted his piano quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s Petroushka for the second half. After the concert we would say Heiliger Dankgesang for ensemble132, organized here as very seriously intense piano quintet of Hong and friends.

To really comprehend the  vividly characterized Petroushka, one should see the ballet, and there is a wonderful 2002 Bolshoi performance with Andris Liepa HERE. The ballet is set in an outdoor festival in St. Petersburg, when three puppets are conjured to life, taking on human emotions and becoming entwined in a love triangle that ends in disaster. In a letter Stravinsky wrote “my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.”

The five players evinced collegial cohesion, especially admirably in Petroushka’s fast tempi and complex rhythms. Would a score written for a huge orchestra and piano sound skimpy with only five players? In the small theater, the arrangement proved convincingly robust, at once intimate, but also lively and forceful. The strings played with abandon and conviction. Maria Ioudenitch shone as first violin, as did her equally tasked and impressive partner Stephanie Zhyzak. Violist Luther Warren produced compelling tones and cellist Zachary Mowitz emoted beautifully in the baritone range. Hong the arranger made virtuosic demands upon himself, enlarging the orchestral piano part into a constantly engaging character. Ensemble132 delivered the glorious, multi-hued goods with quite tight and committed ensemble work.

A prolonged standing ovation ensued.

Luther Warren , Stephanie Zhyzak, Maria Ioudenitch, Zachary Mowitz, Cathy Chan, Sam Hong (Xiaopei Xu photo)

* “The collective of 11 soloists and chamber musicians of the highest caliber, uniting with a shared mission to reimagine the chamber music landscape. The only group of its kind to continually create and premiere new standards in the chamber music repertoire with its artist-crafted arrangements, ensemble132 excites the imagination of audiences across the country with its uniquely genre-defying programs.”

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 since 2010.


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