Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Music of our time for solo piano: Vicky Chow at Newfields

Maybe the performance in an art museum of new music for piano influenced me, with two- and three-
Vicky Chow is committed to new music.
dimensional art in all its silent wholeness so close at hand. In any event, Vicky Chow's solo recital in the Pulliam Family Great Hall at Newfields Tuesday evening had me thinking more of sound sculptures than a linear art form with an implied narrative behind every piece.

It started with the program's first piece. "The Arching Path," by Christopher Cerrone, whose title by itself prompted the audience to think of a journey: a path doesn't mean anything unless it leads somewhere. In fact, Cerrone was inspired by a bridge in Rome, Chow said after playing the 16-minute piece. Its gentle curvature was suggested by an evolution of its basic material: a steady, high-note pulse increasingly inflected by short phrases lower down that insinuate themselves against the prevailing pattern.

Somehow, the dynamic dappling of that high-register opening and the gestures toward putting a foundation under it brought to my mind time-lapse photography of a tree growing from the canopy down. Even thus absurdly reversed, growth itself suggests a narrative, so I suppose I wasn't entirely resisting the composer's much different image. Nonetheless, everything tended to imply the realization of a pre-existent form, like being brought down in enchantment from fluttering sunlit leaves into dank, tangled roots. The rhythmic insistence gradually lessens, as if an inexorable process had given way to pondering. Before that happens, the contrasting phrases resemble music from somewhere else trying to sneak in — a haunting Ivesian touch — before the brief, strong punctuation at the end.

Her performance of the Cerrone displayed Chow's rhythmic security: She can keep more than one strand clearly in view, giving their mutual contradictions integrity. That was evident as well in David Lang's "this was written by hand," which produced the impression of a sustained muttering in which lines differently laid out cut across the surface. Chow's command of tone came to the fore in the singing quality she lent to the left-hand melody at the end.

She played an immense Yamaha grand, which was gratifyingly responsive in all registers. The instrument — as well as Chow's stamina — was put to the test in Michael Gordon's "Sonatra (Equal Temperament)," which concluded the recital. Sounding every note on the keyboard (I'll take the recitalist's word for it), the 15-minute piece is a vast network of arpeggios, each one as individual as snowflakes or fingerprints, set in relentless succession. Before I heard a note, I imagined the title's first word was a pun on the name of Frank Sinatra, but given what ensued, I can't imagine the faintest allusion to Ol' Blue Eyes is intended.

Toward the end, glissandos enter the texture, and a chafing juxtaposition of glisses and arpeggiation brings the work to climax about 12 minutes in. Everything "sounded," with precious few exceptions. The work is unforgiving; one assumes the composer has not dropped in a rest or muted note here and there, so inexorable is the pattern he establishes. So I'll count the performance as near flawless.

A work for prepared piano opened the second half, Andy Akiho's "Vick(i/y)," which suggests an intended name pun. The title's hint of a choice how to spell Chow's first name is deliberately represented by the composer's stimulating alternation of genuine piano sound with partially stopped notes that come through like bells and steel pans. Again, Chow's advanced mastery of rhythm was on display, and the range of sounds we heard rubbed the dust of cliche from the notion that the piano can be made to sound like an orchestra.

The program's other two works were Julia Wolfe's "Compassion," in which tender tremolo passages held their own against fierce, shouting chords, and John Luther Adams' "Nunataks (Solitary Peaks)," an abstract depiction of Arctic mountains that rise abruptly out of ice fields and glaciers. Here my tendency to process the recital as a sculpture garden in sound was most securely founded. Adams' patient, nature-focused muse brought into view heaven-reaching forms offered for admiration as if glimpsed across a vast plain.

Hearable development in music was largely left behind by modernism, as — for good or ill — composers found ways to make their narratives more arcanely sourced and conceived in problem-solving terms. What seems to be emerging in 21st-century music are works that are both fresh and fully accessible because what you hear is what you get. When played with Chow's skill, poise, and commitment, such pieces give the illusion of offering the all-at-once-ness of painting or, allowing for viewing from different angles, sculpture. Her recital amounted to an expert gallery tour.