Monday, January 30, 2017

The fourth of five competition finalists in the American Pianists Awards brings a lot to the table

Drew Petersen's level gaze is indicative of his approach to the piano.
My initial thought as Drew Petersen launched into J.S. Bach's Toccata in F-sharp minor Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center was: "Boy, I can't wait till he plays 'Mazeppa'!"

That sounds snarky, even dismissive, but I offer it as a preface to admitting I was  immensely won over by his Bach performance. It was evident one didn't need to yearn to put a stamp of approval on Petersen as a Liszt pianist in Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D minor. His expressive range and insight, including a pronounced sensitivity to rhythm and his ear for tone color, was fully on display in the Bach Toccata.

The Bach opened Petersen's Premiere Series recital, the next-to-last of the five combination solo/concerto exhibitions by the American Pianists Association's classical competition's finalists. All five finalists (Alex Beyer will close out the Premiere Series on Feb. 26) will be in town for Discovery Week in April, at the end of which one of them will be awarded APA's Classical Fellowship.

There was generous pedal applied to the opening measures of the Toccata, but Petersen's keen articulation kept the passage from resembling a dense fog. The variety of texture in the piece soon brought out the 23-year-old's feeling for contrast, to which he also imparted a flair for dramatic tension as one episode yielded to the next. He was like a classical actor capable of a wide emotional range who covers it all with superb diction. The chromaticism of the fugue at the piece's culmination was particularly exciting, thanks to the high definition he gave to each entry of the theme.

Some of these qualities got three-dimensional vividness with Schumann's "Humoreske," op. 20. Notoriously a less settled personality than Bach, Schumann managed to harness his inner stresses in this work, though not at the highest level of consistency and inspiration. The piece is hard to get into. In "The Literature of the Piano," Ernest Hutcheson succinctly put the case for the negative: "We are fatigued by the long procession of short sections and a monotony of tonality seldom ranging beyond B-flat and G minor." 

The interpreter has to come across as the master of these succinctly expressed moods joined in a lengthy succession. And Petersen did, amazingly. The section marked "Innig" found the recitalist drawing creatively upon the introspectiveness the episode demands. It was impressive how imaginatively Petersen varied his pedaling and touch to give all seven sections their due.

You could sense in the eager top-of-the-beat flow of the Bach some of the controlled impulsiveness Petersen would bring to the concerto occupying the program's second half. That's where he was joined by the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Matthew Kraemer for Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, op. 73 ("Emperor"). At times it seemed the soloist was pushing the tempo, but Kraemer kept the orchestra with him. The piano sound was fitfully too glaring, yet overall suitably varied.

The ICO sounded in top fighting trim, having come off a concert on its own series the night before. It's too bad this durable professional orchestra isn't able to perform more often. As appetizer for the concerto, Kraemer led the orchestra in Schubert's "Overture in the Italian Style" — which essentially means "slow, then fast (including a Rossinian crescendo), with a touch of Viennese gem├╝tlichkeit. " It was smartly played, with delightful wind blend and phrasing.

Finally, to "Mazeppa": The lack of program notes is not crucial to concert enjoyment, but in the case of this title, the story behind the name opens the door to the essence of Romanticism. Based on the 17th-century punishment of an adulterous Polish nobleman — tied naked to a horse set loose and directed eastward, where it fell exhausted in Ukraine — the story inspired Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, and Alexander Pushkin. Such an international symbol, appropriated to represent the artist bound to the back of galloping Genius, was irresistible to Liszt.

Petersen's performance was fully adequate to rendering the tumult of the ride, a brief reflection on the pathos of the punishment, and its concluding measures of victory: Art conquers all. Petersen's Olympian control of rhythmic energy, the wide spectrum of his tonal palette and mastery of musical impasto proved that point unassailably.

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