Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A member of the current APA jury, Lori Sims plays a captivating program of French and French-influenced music at Butler University

Norman Lebrecht, the provocative British blogger and aggregator, recently posted a brief essay asserting that Claude Debussy wrote music without meaning, music that's just about the notes. I found the rant rather opaque, because I had no way to engage with Lebrecht's position besides disagreeing with it.

And nearly seven decades ago, in an often useful book titled "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson said something not so dismissive, but still meant to put Claude de France in a box: "Debussy's music delights, fascinates, amuses. I have not heard its most ardent admirers claim that it ennobles."

Lori Sims' French program was a special treat.
It's safe to say that innovators in the arts are always found to have something missing. What they lack often turns out to be what they have deliberately left behind in order to innovate. So we are dealing with a circular argument that, in the case of Debussy, simply has to be put on a shelf when considering how Lori Sims played the second volume of Debussy preludes Monday night in Butler University's Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

In town to serve on a three-member jury for the Premiere Series of the Amerian Pianists Association, Sims has long been on the piano faculty of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Near the start of her career, she was one of three Beethoven Fellows chosen in 1993 under the APA's  differently structured predecessor competition.

On Monday, she offered not only a well-judged exposition of the 12 pieces, but also one that was thoroughly felt. I dare say that her performance was even ennobling, as well as having those other qualities Hutcheson was happy to identify. Debussy's directions are quite detailed, except for pedaling. She was scrupulous about the former, illuminating and apt with the latter. From her realization of the extremement egal et leger  instruction at the head of "Brouillards" to the distant quotation of "La Marseillaise" in "Feux d'artifices," everything was as it should be, as fine as anyone might imagine it.

Eidson-Duckwall is a lively hall, which means that every sound from a solo piano can flex its muscles. It was amazing how detailed and varied the palette of Sims' interpretation was. You could have anticipated problems at the softer, more "impressionistic" end of the spectrum, but her playing there was just as full of character as in the flashier pieces. The ideal of "a piano without hammers" was bodied forth in "Feuilles Mortes," just as the piano's percussive qualities were lent some display room in "La Puerta del Vino" and "General Lavine - eccentric."

Humor in that piece and in "Hommage a S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C"  bubbled forth, with the latter taking on the requisite ruddy-cheeked quality in celebration of Charles Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" as "God Save the King" was quoted at the outset."La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune" was spellbinding, typical of the way the unique character of each prelude was both sturdy and three-dimensional. Music without meaning? I don't think so.

After capturing probably every heart at the sparsely attended event by opening with a glowing account of the familiar "Clair de Lune," Sims turned to the contemporary composer David Colson, a colleague at WMU,  for "Three Transcendental Preludes." The poetically titled works owe an acknowledged debt to Debussy as well as to Olivier Messiaen and George Crumb. They reflected such influences without being submerged in them, however.

A striking impression was made by "I saw an Angel," the second one, with its thundering reminder that angels are messengers with not always comforting messages. This one would be a terror atop a Christmas tree. The performance was capped by "Above His moons and its waters, He watches, smiling as it gently rains," which called upon the recitalist to whistle — which she did with sustained accuracy and breath control — and to strum and pluck inside the piano. These are techniques that can be used in fresh ways, not just as if royalties had to be paid to George Crumb. And so they were here.

The first half closed with Regard de l'Esprit de joie from Messiaen's ecstatic 1944 suite "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus." The toccata-like piece, with complex rhythms and a transcendent layering of material to near overwhelming effect, drew from Sims a full exhibition of her technical and interpretive strength. A portrayal of divine joy from a composer who took his faith with utmost seriousness requires no less than what the pianist brought to it to shake skepticism to its core.