Monday, September 26, 2016

Henry Kramer opens Premiere Series of participant concerts in quest for APA's Classical Fellowship

Henry Kramer played Mozart, Haydn, Ligeti, Chopin, and Ravel impressively.
An unannounced switch of program order in Henry Kramer's recital Sunday afternoon resulted in thunderous applause after the first movement of Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, op. 35.  Perhaps some people thought they had just heard Ravel's "Ondine," which was originally due to follow the opening piece, Haydn's Sonata in E major, Hob. XVI:31.

I'm not one of those death-to-those-who-applaud-between-movements purists, though I prefer not to. But it wasn't necessarily out-of-place for the Sonata in B-flat minor's "Grave. Doppio movimento" to get such an ovation at the Indiana History Center, considering the command that Kramer displayed.

Admirable was the steady balance of left and right hands, which share material fiercely in dubious battle to the very end. (And by "dubious" I mean "of uncertain outcome," as John Milton used it in that phrase, later borrowed by John Steinbeck as title for a labor novel.)

Poise was evident throughout the solo portion of the program, which followed the format so successful in the past of presenting a competition finalist unaccompanied in the first half of a concert and as concerto soloist after intermission.  Kramer, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Yale and already a much-laureled artist, is the first of five finalists in the Premiere Series of the American Pianists Association.

After all five have notched separate one-week visits here and been judged accordingly, they will come together  in April for Discovery Week, during which their skills as chamber musicians, voice collaborators, and new-music interpreters will be assessed,  then the Gala Finals of concerto performances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. APA has devised a season-long formula for piano excitement.

Returning to the Chopin sonata: The Scherzo intensified the juggernaut feeling, its grim humor relieved by a lyrical episode that Kramer didn't seem at all eager to abandon. The funeral-march movement, whose theme has been parodied in pop and folk culture ("Where will we all be a hundred years from now?"), had a steadiness and sobriety that never faltered. The enigmatic finale rippled from Kramer's fingertips with the sotto voce direction faithfully sustained.

Kramer seems a natural dramatist at the keyboard, but without indulging in false, or even overplayed, gestures. The patrician sensuousness of Maurice Ravel's music, in "Ondine," for example, won't allow it. There is room for dramatic flair in the gathering force of the French composer's evocation of a water nymph. But the glittering atomization of her allure, before and after she makes the pitch (in the poem that inspired the composer) to a mortal to become her husband, has to appear as a substantial attraction and threat. And so it did here.

Four selections from Gyorgy Ligeti's arcanely devised but thoroughly listenable "Musica ricercata" brought the solo recital to a close. The etude-like pieces were notable for Kramer's independence of hands in the "Cantabile molto legato," his control of accents in "Vivace. Energico," and the sturdy whimsy of "Vivace. Capriccioso."  Apt tone and voicing of chords were consistent.

With the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra onstage under the direction of Matthew Kraemer, Kramer applied his superb skills of articulation, dynamic control, and overarching insight to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503. By the end of the marvelous finale, I became convinced I had met an actual person, or a plausible hologram of one. Later at home, I opened my "Mozart Compendium," a guide edited by H.C. Robbins Landon, to come across this as the first sentence of a brief essay on the concertos: "The anthropomorphic qualities of Mozart's solo concertos invite comparisons with his operatic and concert arias."

Strong stuff to apply to an abstract instrumental work, I know, but this performance put a three-dimensional personality before us. I see a kingly figure, accustomed to command but also sensitive to other natures, capable of entertaining second thoughts,  and aware of his own vulnerabilities. The trumpet-and-drums majesty of the first movement, which in this concert had already been heralded by the orchestra's performance of the overture to "La Clemenza di Tito," becomes less insistent in the finale, which has so many other charms to put forward.

These are expressed through an abundance of cunning interactions between piano and orchestra, to which this performance stayed well attuned. Flawless juxtaposition of major and minor modes — a characteristic underlined by Kramer's choice of cadenza — suggested a self-possessed person's transitory mood shifts. The lovely dialogue between piano and the lower strings late in the finale resembled the private conference of a ruler and his wisest counselors. Then, after the pianist's last statement, the public face of the ruler is authoritatively displayed in the trumpet-and-drums vigor of the final measures. This performance set such a Sarastro before us, and we were inclined to nod in respectful acknowledgment — and be delighted to do so.