24 April 2010

Maya Beiser: Ideas that You Can Hold Onto, or that Recurse and Hold Onto You

 Maya Beiser

B    rightly voiced and musically attentive ... young Israeli cellist Maya Beiser has a firm and even hand, regardless of subject: bleak modernism, sultry ethnicity, or Romantic revival.”
  —  Allan Kozinn, The New York Times.
T he performance by cellist Maya Beiser last night in Boston in the Celebrity Series (at the newly-restored Paramount Theatre at 560 Washington St in the Boston theater district) was deeply inspiring.
  • Arvo Pärt: Fratres (4 cello tracks, live cello)
  • Chinary Ung: Khse Buon (cello and electronics)
  • Osvaldo Golijov: Mariel (4 cello tracks, live cello)
  • Steve Reich: Cello Counterpoint (7 cello tracks, live cello, video)
  • Evan Ziporyn (arr.): Like Smoke (cello track, live cello, voice)
  • David Lang: World to Come (24 cello tracks, live cello, voice, video)
M aya Beiser’s repertoire enthusiastically propels the audience from ‘intention’ to ‘reception’ to ‘understanding’ and ‘liking’.

E lectroacoustic synthesis, digital reverb, and DAW sound-processing effects and antiphonal elements from her electrified cello (miked at its bridge) predominate in Pärt’s ‘Fratres’. Highly realistic cello emulations of classical qin glisses and sounds of other traditional Asian instruments captivate us and hold our interest in Chinary Ung’s ‘Khse Buon’. Maya’s cello technic is astounding—a spectacle in its own right well worth the ticket price just to see this. She and her production team put great effort into visual spectacle as well, on a par with what we would expect from, say, opera. (Classical music presenters, take note!)

M ost significantly, though, Maya’s repertoire does not involve separating art from life, and therefore it’s likely to be widely appreciated and subscribed to—compared to less accessible art music. People are more likely to integrate it into their listening and preferred experiences. Maya challenges us—including her use of Hebrew and medieval texts for her vocals; including rapidly altering meters and polyrhythms; including prolonged stretches of microtonal dissonances that refuse to resolve into hoped-for comfort. But she doesn’t ‘strip our [perceptual] gears’; doesn’t ‘trip our circuit-breakers’.

B y contrast, think of composers like Philippe de Vitry, who composed motets and other choral music where several languages were heard simultaneously. This is probably the nearest thing to what we heard Maya Beiser perform last night. Or maybe Glagolitic chant. Anyhow, Philippe de Vitry is, to me, emblematic of compulsive fuse-blowing and impedance mismatch regardless what century you live in. If you live for querulous reactions, or if your message is symbolic evocation of disparity and alienation and political discord, then, hey, go right ahead—do it like Philippe. Just don’t imagine that people will love it, buy it like hotcakes.

U nless. Unless, you use the complexity as a way to change the narrative or subvert the intention of the original—which is what Maya Beiser does so extensively in this program (and in her recordings).

E van Ziporyn’s ‘Like Smoke’ is based on Tsmindao Ghmerto, a 13th century Sanctus from the orthodox Georgian Liturgy that exhibits extreme polyphony of 15 or more distinct parts or voices, with untempered intervals and shocking harmonic convergences. In Evan Ziporyn’s arrangement, Maya’s voice and Maya’s cello weave a perception-bending pseudo-archaic ‘fabric’ out of tri-filar (two cello tracks; one vocal track) ‘threads’.

G    od, the soul you gave me
Is smoke—
Memories of Love burning on eternal pyre.
Once born, we immediately begin to torch,
And so,
Until all the smoke vanishes,
[I am, we are—] Like smoke.”
  —  Yehuda Amichai.
T he poetic text [we humans are mortal ‘smoke’ that is not ‘real’ or ‘purposeful’ but only someone else’s (God’s) memories, residue of someone else’s love (God’s), destined to be consumed and vanish forever] subverts the religious postulate of eternal life; we are all inconsequential, beautiful-but-meaningless aerosols—mere air pollutants, not individuals with moral standing and worth.

T his beauteous prostrate imagery is mightily at odds with how we (all of us except monks, that is) conduct our lives. The quasi-archaism belies a post-modern, post-minimalist intention. The original sacred, liturgical purpose of Tsmindao Ghmerto is co-opted to the purpose of honoring romantic/carnal love—which is the substitution that is natural for us post-modern, western, sexy media-immersed souls to make.

U sing György Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ and ‘Requiem’ and Johann Strauss’s ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’ in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is similar. Good examples of musical irony. Provocatively subverting our notions of the ‘specialness’ of us as human beings and individuals; provocatively subverting our assumptions/self-delusions about God, about linear time, about whether there is deep meaning in the Universe. Quasi-archaic music to challenge post-modern world-views.

 Keir Dullea, 2001

T he dramaturgy and use of irony are engaging—Maya’s edgy acoustic textural and visual fields do not seriously test our perceptual boundaries, not really. Instead, the consistency and the psychological cohesiveness of Maya’s performance (and the cohesiveness of each of these compositions and videos) keep from blowing the listeners’ ‘fuses’, in much the same way that ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ did not blow any fuses.

C    ello Counterpoint’ for eight cellos...is irresistibly driven and less overtly contrapuntal than earlier installments in the series. Mr. Reich explores new harmonic ground, not least an almost Romantic lushness aided by Ms. Beiser’s rich tone and energetic playing.”
  —  Allan Kozinn, The New York Times.
F or Steve Reich’s ‘Cello Counterpoint,’ Bill Morrison filmed Maya playing seven of the eight cello parts. She plays the eighth part ‘live’ alongside this film, forming an all-Beiser octet. The ‘septich’ film panels reveal the mutability of human personality over time. This is a rather long work, and Maya’s serially recording each of the seven tracks that appear in the film must’ve taken a day or longer. The seven panels comprising the ‘septich’ film show Maya and her cello, projected on the 7-meter-high floor-to-ceiling screen, with facial expressions and bowing gestures as widely varied as anyone might have during the course of a day—from fresh in the morning, to fatigued in the afternoon. The eight Mayas do have contrapuntal conversations with each other, as the title promises. But more than this, we emerge with a sense of the recursive quality of the meat-computer inside of Maya’s head, inside of our heads… its small-timescale 200-millisecond canons that return and re-trigger the same network of synapses and reinvoke the same thought that had not yet finished executing.

I rit Batsry made videos for David Lang’s ‘World to Come’ so Beiser appears to perform inside an empty warehouse or in front of rippling water. Lots of recursion, musically and visually, in this piece, too. In other words, Batsry’s black-and-white video is no mere ‘backdrop’ or throw-down scenery. It is genuine accompaniment and the result, a genuine multimedia performance. Fascinating!

 Maya Beiser, photo ©2010 Merri Cyr

O ver the past decade, Beiser has commissioned and performed many new works, collaborating with composers Tan Dun, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Osvaldo Golijov, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, and Mark O’Connor among others. Raised on a kibbutz in Israel by her French mother and Argentinean father, Maya Beiser is a graduate of Yale University. Her major teachers were Aldo Parisot, Uzi Weizel, Alexander Schneider, and Isaac Stern. Maya was the founding cellist of the new music ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

22 April 2010

Victor Goldberg: Musical Meditation, Being a Blessing

 Victor Goldberg

I    n a theme for [a set of] variations, it is almost only the bass [left-hand piano part] that has any meaning for me. But this is sacred to me: it is the firm foundation on which I then build my [musical] ‘stories’. What I do with a melody is only playing around ... If I vary only the melody, then I cannot easily be more than clever or graceful, or, indeed, [if] full of feeling, deepen a pretty thought. On the given bass, I invent something actually new; I discover new melodies in it--I create.”
  —  Johannes Brahms.
V ictor Goldberg’s performance last night in the [completely filled] Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall was a tour de force.
  • Scarlatti: Sonata in E Major, K. 380
  • Chopin: Scherzo in B-flat Minor Op. 31
  • Shostakovich: Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 61
  • Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24
I n particular, the emotional diversity of this program fully lived up to the ambitious ‘Depths of the Creative Spirit’ billing.

T he Brahms variations and fugue are the epitome of developing and reprising an idea, turning it round and round, dwelling on it and expanding it. Unlike Bach’s Goldberg variations or Beethoven’s Diabelli variations that vary the subject with the aim of departing from it, the Brahms reiterates its subject and reiterates it until the ‘patterns’ in the ‘wallpaper’ take on new, ever newer meanings. The nominal ‘structure’ recedes as in some kinds of optical illusions, and the deep/hidden significance is revealed. Pure magic.

I  have read about this piece in the illustrious books about Brahms; I have heard Op. 24 performed before. Its surface qualities seem straightforward enough. And its storied place in Brahms’s early career (and in his relationship with Clara Schumann, who premiered Op. 24 in December, 1861) makes it seem like a known quantity.

B ut the meditative, ‘wave-like’, strophic character of Brahms’s 25 variations was prominently featured in Goldberg’s account last night. In fact, this is the first time that I think I understand this piece? Meditating musically is Victor Goldberg’s specialty—meditating not on changing the world or persuading others of his point of view, but meditating toward deeply apprehending the reality that’s already here and allowing us to apprehend it, too.

T here are many forms of meditative practice, but their essence is to see the truth of what ‘is’. Many classical Jewish meditations do this by contemplating a particular object—a phrase, a sense-perception, even an idea—and focusing intensely on it so that all distractions drop away. Similarly, in Buddhist and other traditions, attention is drawn to the barest perceptions of breath or movement—simply to suppress our inner chatter. Saying the rosary may have a similar effect for Roman Catholics. ‘Oneg shabbos’—becoming ever more exquisitely attuned to emotions—takes real effort. Getting ‘neshama yeteira’ (an ‘extra’ soul) or revealing and engaging the ‘hidden’ soul—doesn’t come from magic. It comes from effective, concentrated attention, and this is the gift that Goldberg gives us.

I    t was through Pro Musicis and [their] community service concerts that I began to truly understand the power of communication and, therefore, the power of music.”
  —  Peter Oundjian, violinist/conductor, quoted on Pro Musicis website.
G oldberg is a 32 year-old Russian-born Israeli who has performed extensively in Israel, Europe, and the United States. His honors include the 2008 Pro Musicis International Award, the Artist Recognition Award at the International Keyboard Festival in New York and the Vladimir Horowitz International Piano Competition in Kiev, and First Prize at the Arianne Katcz Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. Goldberg is a scholar of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and holds degrees from Tel Aviv University’s Rubin Academy, Juilliard, the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, and the Manhattan School of Music.

20 April 2010

MATA Young Composers Now! Festival: Ears Are the Way to Hearts and Minds

 MATA Festival

W    hat could be the relationship between a viola solo and the destruction of large portions Iraq’s archaeological heritage during the Gulf War? How could a trombone solo possibly relate to the suffering of Iraq’s children as a consequence of past United States’ led United Nations’ economic sanctions imposed on Iraq? What does music have to do with environmental change and the Gobi Desert?”
  —  Katia Tiutiunnik, The Symbolic Dimension: An Exploration of the Compositional Process, 2010.
I f you are in New York over the next several days and are interested in having your musical horizons stretched, be sure to sample the offerings in this year’s MATA Festival, whose events are being held at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village.

M ATA’s opening last night featured a 2-hour presentation of an interactive sound work ‘Totem for Gobi-New York’ by composer Matt Wright in LPR’s downstairs black-box Gallery Bar with improvisations by renowned U.K. saxophonist Evan Parker. The experience was a poignant period of speculating on the methods and practices of making, experiencing, and thinking about music… imaginative musical meditation about the future of the natural world, faced with the challenges of human population and global development.

T he user is immersed by ‘Gobi’ in a sonic environment with 8 studio monitor speakers overhead plus two large flat-panel video screens that respond to track-pad controller movements with fluid shifts in volume levels and desert imagery. A rhythm pulses continuously, but the intensities of the individual elements (or tracks) are altered by user movement of the track-pads. The participants are able to create their own sonic arrangement of the parts, altering the musical environment with which other participants then interact. The work is a fluid and immersive environment with us users becoming less conscious of ourselves engineering a mix of sounds and more conscious of a constructed environment, experienced sonically, that we symbolically manipulate.

T here is powerful political irony in having ‘Totem-Gobi’ installed in a bar setting, as opposed to, say, a museum. In the bar, the human participants are interacting with the controls in a playful, cavalier, irreverent way, characteristic of routine ‘cocktail behavior’ and oblivious to what they have just done to the music by touching the track-pad in the way that they did. By contrast, in a museum or other setting with reverent behavioral customs the ‘Totem-Gobi’ participants may tend to interact in a manner that is attentive to cause-and-effect, the moral consequences of their actions. How poetically fitting this is. Humankind: most of us oblivious to our environmental impacts—on the Gobi, and on the Earth as a whole.

1) Generate a population of motifs and sound envelopes;
2) Construct timbre model;
3) Evaluate fitness of population members based on an example sound or set of sounds;
4) Select ‘parent’ motifs and pairs of population members to ‘crossover’ their genotypes;
5) Perform ‘crossover’ using genetic algorithm;
6) Perform mutation of motifs;
7) Evaluate the ‘fitness’ of resulting mutants based on an example sound or set of sounds;
8) Survivors’ and replace the current population with new one;
9) Check if the termination condition is satisfied; if not, go back to step 3, otherwise stop the algorithm.

T he algorithm starts by generating a population of candidate sounds. These are weighted samples such as sine wave, square wave, noises, fractals, etc. The timbre model is constructed using a [Kohonen?] neural network. This is an unsupervised machine learning algorithm that self-organizes into a ‘feature map’. In the construction phase of the timbre model the neural network is trained with the initial population and the example sound. The neural network self-organizes into a feature map of sound spectra under the influence of audience-participants’ interactions with the two computer track-pads—one on either end of the LPR’s darkened Gallery Bar.

I    s there any difference between improvisation and composition? If so, maybe it has to do with notation. If notated scores create a written literature of music, then improvised compositions create an oral literature of music. But most improvisation involves some degree of notation, at least in principle. And most notated music involves some degree of improvisation... Maybe it has to do with speed. Improvisation happens in the moment, while composition can take a very long time. But if improvisation is spontaneous composition, and composition is a kind of deliberated improvisation, then again it’s just a matter of degree...”
  —  John Luther Adams, NewMusicBox, 2001.
T uesday evening’s MATA program at LPR will include works by Christopher McIntyre, Antye Greie, and Bjørn Erik Haugen, Lisa Coons’s ‘Cythère’ (a musical ‘trauma ballet’ ?!), Fabian Svensson’s ‘Singing and Dancing’, Daniel Wohl’s ‘Glitch’, and a world premiere by Nathan Davis, co-commissioned by MATA and Carlsbad Music Festival, performed by Calder String Quartet. Cool.

B y the way, you might like to have a look at the recent book on symbolic and evolutionary music, by Eduardo Miranda (Professor in Computer Music at the University of Plymouth and Edgard Varèse Guest Professor of Computer Music at the Technical University of Berlin) and Al Biles (Professor of Information Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology) [link below].

 Evan Parker
 Evan Parker: House Full of Floors
P    arker’s inventions stick in the ears like fish hooks.”
  —  Scott Hacker, Cadence, 1994.
 MATA Festival

17 April 2010

Quadrivium Novum: Unity with Autonomy

Quadrivium Novum

A    [filmic] image combined with a sound placed in a context--none of which matches expectations--creates a metaphor and invites an individual search for meaning at a physical, emotional and psychological level (in that order).”
  —  Paul Rudy, UMKC Conservatory.
T he performance last night at Unity Temple by the electroacoustic quartet Quadrivium Novum was the final event of the 2009-2010 season for the Kansas City Electronic Music & Arts Alliance, KCEMA.

Q uadrivium is comprised of Rebecca Ashe (flute), Kari Johnson (piano), Cheryl Melfi (clarinet), and Mark Stauffer (cello). [‘Quadrivium’ may not only allude to their quartetness but also to each member’s equal, autonomous role in bringing new, disruptive repertoire and techniques to the ensemble’s collaborations—much as though each member were a canonical ‘subject’ to be studied, learned, mastered?] Each of Quadrivium’s members is associated with the UMKC Conservatory’s Community Music & Dance Academy.

  • Daniel Eichenbaum: Orbit (flute, clarinet, live electronics; 20 min)
  • Jason Bolte: Scrap Metal (prepared piano solo, fixed media; 10 min)
  • Mara Gibson: E:Vespers (flute, clarinet, piano, digital audio; 8 min)
  • Andrew Seager Cole: A Slow Unraveling (flute, clarinet, cello, piano, electronics, video; 8 min)
  • William Lackey: The World Falls Asleep (cello, digital recording of cello; 10 min)
  • Christopher Biggs: Bioluminescence (flute, clarinet, piano, digital audio, video; 12 min)
E ach of the works was rewarding, and I should apologize for not commenting here on each of them. Let me at least offer a few impressions of the three pieces that were world premieres: ‘E:Vespers’, ‘Orbit’, and ‘A Slow Unraveling’.

M ara Gibson’s ‘E:Vespers’, a ‘fantasie’ or tone-poem composed on the occasion of observing an eclipse, was remarkable for the organic, natural way in which the digital audio functions as an equal to the three live performers. The partitioning of human assistants and digital tracks programs all the tasks into one application, run by a single assistant at the console workstation in the center of the performance space. This approach does not ‘reduce’ the interpretation to ‘assistant vs. trio’ duality, nor does it risk dichotomizing the technology and the performers at the front of the performance space. Rather, with the house lights dimmed, the effect is one of a thoroughly integrated ‘whole’ in which the individual parts reveal their character and ideas—beginning with the tolling of delicate, repeated notes by the piano.

T he technology actually helps to maintain the textural and timbral cohesion of the other parts (clarinet, flute, piano), whose acoustic spectra are otherwise diverse. Unlike some electroacoustic works in which the technology is intrusive or merely ornamental; unlike works where the digital tracks, having been laid down and sequenced in advance, are inflexible and impose too much determinism on the live executants. In the case of Gibson’s ‘E:Vespers’, the composer is still the creator, and the 3 performers and 1 assistant are the directors in charge of interpreting the musical elements of the work, whether they are for an acoustic instrument or combined with a computer sequencer. The performers are responsible to recreate the world the composer has envisioned: here, a contemplative, reverent, panoramic one—punctuated with worries but ultimately beneficent—captured in the twilight of the eclipse and return of the sun after 'totality'.

W    e orbit and float in our space gondola and watch the oceans and islands and green hills of the continent pass by at five miles per second. We move silently and effortlessly past the ground. I want to say ‘over the ground’ as I write this, but remember: in space, your sense of up or down is completely gone and my description must reflect this fact. In addition, the breathtaking speed of the ship is an odd and confusing contrast to the feel of perpetually floating within the spaceship. You do not sit before the window to view the passing scene, certainly not down upon it. Are you speeding past oceans and continents, or are you just hovering and watching them move beside you?”
  —  Joseph Allen, U.S. astronaut.
D aniel Eichembaum’s ‘Orbit’ is an antiphonal piece for flute, clarinet, and electronics. Rebecca Ashe and Cheryl Melfi are dressed in black, in near-total darkness, barefoot. They perform Orbit’s several movements as a duo, gliding anticlockwise between the four ‘stations’ that are set up on-stage. The stations are separated around the perimeter of a 10-meter circle whose perigee is closest to the audience and apogee farthest away.

T he ephemeral, ambient quality of electroacoustic elements is abundant, at times dominant. But it is important to note that the digital tracks are derived entirely from recordings of Rebecca’s and Cheryl’s own playing, breathing, moving—not from Eichenbaum’s digital waveform library or independent geek artistry in a vacuum. Extensive digital signal-processing (DSP) and editing have been done to produce what are now rendered by the sequencer in performance as, say, massive, rocket-like, spine-shaking ‘rumbles’ [from the multiple studio monitor speakers that are arrayed around the performance space, controlled from the assistant’s digital audio workstation console] or celestial chirps or high-energy quantum particle ‘tweets’. We had no idea of this in advance. But when Rebecca and Cheryl remarked after the performance that all of the electroacoustic effects we had just heard during this piece had begun from sounds that they themselves had made, and that Eichenbaum had recorded and processed and sequenced them as the three of them sat together at the DAW console in the studio, it was heartwarming evidence of a deeper sort of collaboration between performers and composer. Composer/DAW-artist/engineer as performer; performers as engineers/editors/co-composers. There is something profoundly ‘right’ about this.

W hat I mean is, composers, performers, computer musicians/DAW-artists have accepted, for the most part, the progressive abstractions from older analog and now-obsolete digital hardware into software modules and sequencer patches... not just ‘miniaturization’ per se but now total automation and virtuality, including software to manage the multiple applications and equipments and software to insert random aleatorics and emulate human-like variability effects. These abstractions are motivated by reliability, by productivity for the composer, by aesthetic considerations—all valid and admirable. But the abstractions have incrementally impoverished the electroacoustic performance experience, I think—compared to, say, my first experience of a Moog Synthesizer as a child of 10 at the Minneapolis Symphony (now Minnesota Orchestra) in 1963, teeming with patch-cables and wires and mad-scientist musician (I regret I cannot remember who, or which composers’ works were performed) at the keyboard, clearly *not* in complete control.

Moog synthesizer, ca. 1964

B ut in Eichenbaum’s ‘Orbit’ we have a focused assimilation of the digital and acoustic environments, in which the digital realization is a cohesive part--‘gluey’ elements that hold the entire composition together. The live performers are not ‘bystanders’. They are confronted, yes, by their own DSP-processed previously-recorded sounds. They are reacting to the aleatoric expressions of the DAW assistant who is reincarnating the sequences at one remove, so to say. And they know this, even though we in the audience did not, until the remarks following the performance.

H aving heard Rebecca’s and Cheryl’s post-performance commentary on ‘Orbit’, though, we now comprehend aspects of the performer-electronics interactions that we hadn’t grasped at first hearing: the intimacy of the part that you are now playing, live; the musical subtleties of rediscovering the state-of-mind you were in when you made the sounds that you are now hearing emanate from these electronics; the expressive stimulation of being re-reminded now, of how that sequencer patch was co-edited by you and Daniel not so long ago. This can be a truly productive process—and a provocative montage of active, creative roles and meta-roles for performers in their interpretations of electroacoustic music, as it was with the Quadrivium performance last night!

W hat else? The noise gradations range from total silence (a bus is heard faintly, passing by outside Unity Temple on 47th Street) to 100 dB butt-shaking. ‘Really Noisy’ (what Stockhausen would call ‘sehr geräuschaft’)–filtered ‘pink’ noise and rumbling ‘red’ noise, convolved with other signals on the track to the point where it pervades the space and progressively washes out and obscures Rebecca’s flute and Cheryl’s clarinet. ‘Sort of Noisy’ (‘etwas geräuschaft’) – square and sawtooth waves convolved with the rest, but with enough high-frequency spectral content to meld with and preserve the listener’s attentiveness to upper-register activity in the flute and clarinet parts... A dense polyphony, reminiscent of György Ligeti’s writing for the score of the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’: a choir of myriad voices; the mixing and intermingling and asynchronous entries and departures of thousands of voices; microtonal voices, sounding notes a quarter-tone higher or lower than their neighbors; cosmic cacophony tending toward pantheism.

A ndrew Seager Cole’s ‘A Slow Unraveling’ applies combinatoric permutations to tiny musical elements to generate large [fractal?] structures. The fast-tempo elements that begin the piece devolve into slower ‘child’ elements that enclose and subsume the ‘parents’ until the music completely unravels, finally coming to a rest. The music was genuinely interesting and admirably executed, regardless of its formal compositional methods and inspiration. Kari Johnson’s piano and Mark Stauffer’s cello were especially compelling, as regards imbuing the piece with vivid kinesthetic impressions of velocity and depth/space. The piece has narrative; a story unfolding among the performers. It is intimate ‘chamber music’, yes. But it is the paradoxical ‘intimacy’ of space itself, on an astronomical scale.

B ravo!

10 April 2010

Kevin Kenner: Contract between Human Virtuoso and Virtuosic Instrument

Kevin Kenner

T    here is an urbane, worldly aspect to Chopin’s style that partly accounts for his immense popularity. It has also given him a bad name among amateurs who take their music earnestly. Chopin’s urbanity has two strongly contrasting facets: (1) a virtuoso ‘glitter’—above all, the use of fast, brilliant passage work in the upper reaches of the piano; and (2) a fashionable sentimentality, employed directly and openly, without humor—there is, in fact, irony and wit but no trace of humor in Chopin’s music; neither the diabolical humor of Liszt, nor the ambiguous poetic humor of Schumann.”
  —  Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 383.
P ianist Kevin Kenner’s performance last night was dramatic and graceful.

  • Chopin: Andante spianato, Op. 22
  • Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
  • Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31
  • Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39
  • Chopin: Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54
  • Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9
  • Chopin: Variations in A major ‘Souvenir de Paganini’, B. 37 (encore)
K enner ardently addresses himself to the piano, much like we imagine Chopin might have done: his poetic disposition is not ‘contemplative’ so much as ‘speculative’ or ‘fanciful’; not ‘tender’ so much as ‘intimate’; not ‘impulsive’ so much as resolvedly ‘intent’ upon eliciting a specific response.

I n other words, not ‘sentimental’ but ‘romantic’.

H    ow often do I tell my piano all that I should like to impart to you! ... How much more will my piano have to weep?”
  —  Frederick Chopin, 1829, letter to lover (quoted in Niecks).
T hese pieces, I think, reveal the capabilities of the new Steinway instrument that Friends of Chamber Music has recently acquired, as much as they reveal the powers of the executant (Kenner). The program in fact offered an extended opportunity to reflect on romantic piano idioms, and on the nature of a performer’s rapport with genre and instrument.

J ust as Kallberg (link below) some years ago noted that there is an implied ‘contract’ between the performer and the listener, there (inevitably?) is an implied ‘contract’ between the performer/composer and the instrument: the performer agrees to use certain conventions, patterns, and gestures, and the instrument consents to render them under an agreed set of terms and conditions—generously accomodating some aspects of them; withholding others—in a way that is consistent with the genre and aesthetic intent of the performer.

B oth Kenner and the instrument admirably fulfilled their bargain* with each other last night. Bravo!

(*The ‘agreement’ is, of course, not just one agreement, nor is it executed in advance. In fact, it is a chain of ongoing, inter-related agreements and renewals and codasils, negotiated and renegotiated on a tens-of-milliseconds time-scale.)

    [50-sec clip, Kevin Kenner, Frederick Chopin, ‘Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39’, 1.6MB MP3]

I n Kenner’s passages of prodigious Chopinian speed, you can hear the piano ‘speak’. In the case of Chopin Scherzos, the piano doubtless speaks Polish, admonishing the performer of more dangerous ‘curves’ ahead.

Kevin Kenner
C    hopin’s sadism is usually more subtle than that of his contemporaries, and in most of his work actual pain is associated with emotional violence... the moment of greatest emotional tension is generally the one that stretches the hand most painfully, so that the muscular sensation becomes—even without the piano’s sound—a mimesis of passion.”
  —  Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation, p. 382.