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Rare Extended-Piano Gems With A Bang


NEC piano professor Steve Drury, along with many aficionados of master Ives and prepared-piano virtuosity, finished their celebration for the Charles Ives 150th Birthday with a concert of rarely heard (but often discussed) extended technique piano pieces. On March 27th at Jordan Hall, Drury and Hidemi Akaiwa opened with Drury’s arrangement of Alvin Lucier’s Music for Piano with Magnetic Strings. This e-bow-heavy duet barely registered for the audience, as it took place while everyone filed into the hall; this decision was, of course, intentional, re-framing the hum of the hall with resonating piano strings. This unorthodox choice became the theme of the evening, with Ives being joined by coevals Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, and Lou Harrison, along with later composers Georg Friedrich Haas and David Fulmer.

The first audience-focused performance came in the form of Evocations, Four Chants for Piano composed by Ruggles. Pianist Hang Zhong played each of the chants tenderly and with great respect for how Jordan Hall could do most of the resonating work, making each of these four movements tiny but expressive in their sound. It appeared to this reviewer, without knowing as much about this work as others on the program, that each section was about one page long; mentioning this fact is important, as pairs of chants blended, losing me (positively) in the music.

Ives’s The Celestial Railroad takes cues from the long journey in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of the same title, both in its programmatic element and, in a sense, its own musical journey, having been broken up and recomposed several times into other famous works such as Symphony No. 4 and Sonata for Piano No. 2Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860 II. Hawthorne. The work as originally composed isn’t as frequently performed, despite forming the backbone of several major works. Don’t mention this discrepancy to performer August Baik, whose interpretation thereof  shone brightly. Baik felt comfortable in the thorniest dissonance to the most unusually placed rag and “Battle Cry of Freedom!” quotation, reflecting the unusual and parodic journey of the actual celestial railroad through Destruction. Could he be a candidate to learn the railroad’s famous half-cousin in the second sonata? Time will tell, but this reviewer thinks so.

Suite for Piano by Harrison followed, in the expert hands of Yali Levy Schwartz. Harrison covered the full range of expression ion the five movements, opting mostly to stick to relatively darker textures and sound worlds but occasionally brightening up the palette (Interlude comes to mind here). Schwartz met the challenge readily, notably in the Aria where she revealed a full range of tone colors

Set of Five Take-Offs pitted Ives against several different parody subjects, from Mendelssohn (“Song Without (Good) Words”) to New Years’ Resolutions (“Bad Resolutions and Good Wan”). Knowing that each of these pieces encapsulates some musical joke, each of the take-offs should be approached with the expectation that they are not serious at all. Such works need to be infused with off-kilter humor and a sense of the performer being in on the joke. Daniel Chen Wang, for all of his flawless execution of the notes for each movement (along with, on occasion, the character, especially in “The Seen and Unseen?”, could better have expressed the instead of merely letting the piano resonate as broadly as possible before ‘The Unseen’ crept its way in. More humor and more expectation of a musical punch line were wanted. Wang is on the right path, however; in time he can land the humor.

The four Cowell pieces are best talked about in pairs, as they straddled the chasm of intermission and shared performers. The Tides of Maunaunaun and The Lilt of the Reel required Jessica Yuma to place her full forearm down onto the keys to play large mostly pandiatonic clusters between the upper and lower registers for each work. Yuma played with the sharpest intensity in the aggressive Manaunaun while easily lightening up for the Reel that followed; the dichotomy of characters ran from dark and intense to light and cheerful.

Steven Drury at an earlier SICPP (Andrew Hurbut photo)

Pauline Pu, on the other side of the intermission cleft, strummed the strings of the piano in The Aeolian Harp., which encouraged her to show how thoughtfully she could depress keys in sheer silence, as per the instrument namesake, only certain triads and harmonies are allowed to resonate with the aeolian harp, locking off other strings to not create dissonance. Pu quietly depressed several keys to allow the called-for strings to echo cleanly despite a chromatic strum; it was almost as if she never touched the keys. Pu then held the sustain pedal down for Pin-Chieh Chen to scrape the strings for the ever famous inside-the-piano piece The Banshee. Ironically enough, the hall dampened the sound of the screeching spirit through no fault of Chen. She scraped and strummed along the strings in such a manner that it felt like the piano was groaning, save for the occasional accidental fingernail clipping the side of a string and making it sound. If only the lid were on the piano, perhaps that might have helped; granted, it would have made the piece impossible to perform, however, given how Chen had to lean in, so maybe this dryness was the only compromise possible.

Then came the second quarter tone piano. Kyuree Kim played Haas’s Hommage à Steve Reich from Trois Hommages, a favorite of Drury. Kim remained completely focused the entire time, not letting herself get tricked or caught up in the teeth-gnashing quarter tone dissonance. Once settled in, however, small subgroupings akin to Reich’s traditional minimalist compositions emerged as the quarter tones and rhythmic passages interacted, imitating the minimalist giant rather well without being mistaken for him.

David Fulmer’s Only in darkness is thy shadow clear, the most recent work on offer, and a Tanglewood/Callithumpian Consort co-commission, showed a gestural and composite-chord side to this type of microtonal composition. Duo-pianists Joseph Vasconi and Kexin Tian had to synchronize with each other due to the relative lack of consistent pulse. They did excellently at that, as we heard minimal tearing between the two parts; they let the instruments growl in their lower registers until they shone in the upper. Compared with the star of the evening, Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, the duet of Shu Wen Tay and Benjamin Rossen could operate more in rhythm, still needing to synchronize with each other but permitting some expressive possibility. Especially during the Allegro (a re-composition and reinterpretation of Ives’s earlier Ragtime Dances) the two effectively let the pianos interact. Ives composed the piece to demonstrate a more melodic and less harmonically dense form of quarter-tone performance, with customary ascents and descents between the two keyboards. At this point Tay and Rossen made themselves one voice. We would like to have heard a grittier take at some points, such as in the quick, grace-note arpeggiations that should have been louder and deeper in  intensity than the delicate and dainty run to the resolution note we heard.

The concert appeared to be over until a stage door opened and out came NEC legend Ran Blake in his wheelchair. Drury then sat at the quarter-tone piano with Blake at the normal one as the house lights dimmed. The two then embarked on an improvised adventure for the next five minutes, enveloped in darkness and not knowing where the harmonies would lead next. The two demonstrated immense talent for contemporary improvisation, however, and this reviewer would listen them endlessly.

Sharting his passion for the piano as an extended instrument, Drury set this 150th birthday of Charles Ives off with a bang.

Ian Wiese is Associate Professor of Ear Training at Berklee College of Music and doctoral candidate in Composition at New England Conservatory of Music. He studied with the late John Heiss, Michael Gandolfi, and Kati Agocs.

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