Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Richard Ratliff combines programming and performing deftness in UIndy piano recital

In more than 20 years of attending University of Indianapolis concerts featuring professor of piano Richard Ratliff, I've found it's a given that the programs will be interesting, well-balanced and varied.

As usual, Richard Ratliff held the interest.
The tradition continued Monday night with his solo recital at DeHaan Fine Arts Center titled "From Bach to Berners," the alliterative allure of which only hints at the range he covered. For one thing, "Bach" designated not Johann Sebastian, but his most distinguished, if eccentric, composing son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  In the middle of Ratliff's opening set came C.P.E. Bach's Rondo in C minor, a work full of wit and surprises.

The recitalist seemed fully sympathetic to the quirkiness of this music, highlighting it by his pervasively staccato and leggiero handling of the theme. The daring separation of the piece's phrases gave it both a tentative feeling and a bravura mood. Ratliff seemed comfortable with that ambivalence, as if anything could happen and the composer expected the listener to be OK with it. In Ratliff's hands, we were. The abrupt stage whisper of a phrase with which the Rondo ends was brought off with a seasoned actor's nonchalance.

More settled pieces of an almost studious mien lay on either side of the Bach.  Opening the recital, Kodaly's "Meditation sur un motif de Claude Debussy" put the dour material the title alludes to in a low register. The motif gradually got lighter treatment, and the harmonies paid tribute to the French composer as well. Ratliff's way with the decorative figures accompanying the theme approximated the Debussyan ideal of a "piano without hammers."

Ratliff's engaging oral program note from the stage put Aaron Copland's "Night Thoughts (Homage to Ives)" in context. He indicated his desire to update his interpretation of the commissioned piece that he and 37 other participants in the 1973 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were required to play. It was evident Ratliff wanted to take some of the barbed quality out of the piece to emphasize its haunting loneliness, perhaps making a gesture to such a nocturnal charmer as Copland's "Quiet City." And that new vision of the piece paid off in Ratliff's performance.

The pianist-professor was similarly insightful and concise in talking about Beethoven's Sonata in D major, op. 10, no. 3, the program's centerpiece. The logic of his full performance matched that of his explanation, with clarity joining it after a slightly woolly first movement. Considering the individual character of each movement, a cohesive interpretation seems no easy accomplishment. His patient traversal of the  "Largo e mesto" was particularly moving. After the sunny minuet, Ratliff didn't shy away from or gloss over the witty, pause-punctuated short phrases that make the finale so idiosyncratic.

The program contained a new work, "Star Harp Tender" by Ratliff's UIndy colleague John Berners. It's a delicately evolving piece with unsentimental reference to starry skies and the linking of their components into constellations made by our ancestors. The score's spacious placement of notes in the treble range is soon undergirded by sparse countermelodies and a bit of harmony. All of this is rigorously understated, allowing for a mood of meditation to overcome any anxiety as to what it all adds up to. The atmosphere, conjured up wonderfully in this performance,  recalls some of the work of George Crumb and Morton Feldman.

Finishing with three Chopin waltzes was a typically deft Ratliffian touch (not counting the St. Patrick's Day encore, Carter Pann's flavorful arrangement of "Danny Boy").  The Waltz in E minor, op. posthumous, seemed somewhat undercharacterized, a little too soft-spoken, even guarded.  But that tender, nuanced approach, wedded to suppleness of rhythm throughout, served well the waltzes in A-flat major, op. 34, no. 1, and C-sharp minor, op. 64, No. 2.

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