Tuesday, April 4, 2017

American music, including a new piece, occupies American Pianists Awards finalists

A prismatic perspective on a new work emerged Monday night as five finalists in the American Pianists Awards offered their interpretations of Judith Lang Zaimont's "Attars," the commissioned competition piece of the current contest.

Judith Lang Zaimont
The composer's imaginative rendering of something difficult to translate from olfactory to auditory reality — the five essential oils — makes up a seven-minute piece that enthralled each time it was performed in the DeHaan Fine Arts Center at the University of Indianapolis.

The rules of the new-music recital require contestants to spend 15 minutes performing, with free choice among American works for solo piano filling up the time not required for the competition piece. So the companions to "Attars" ranged widely across a spectrum of music each 2017 finalist thought would show himself off well. The programs are assessed along with the Gala Finals Friday and Saturday by a five-person jury, resulting in the award of the Christel DeHaan Fellowship, a two-year honor including a cash prize of $50,000 and artist-in-residence designation by the University of Indianapolis.

The composer's indication that pianists may make choices in the attar order (a phrase that's as much fun to write as it is to say) accounts for only a few differences in the performances. To start with the first two, splashes of figuration early in the work evoked Debussy when Sam Hong played them, Liszt when Henry Kramer performed the same episode.

Steven Lin used lots of pedal and always seemed mindful of resonance, putting auras around chordal passages. He was unique in de-emphasizing the concluding "blue note" in a signature phrase of a jazzy attar description, linking it instead to the following phrase. But such matters are neither here nor there without knowing if they're endorsed by what Zaimont wrote.

Alex Beyer made much more of the waltz evocation than the others. On the other hand, maybe I was hearing that suggestion more vividly by the time he performed. He was the fourth of the performers on the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall stage.

Drew Peterson's projection was strong from the start, and the blues portion was especially assertive.

Of the five, I would award the palm to Beyer in "Attars." Yet I have to give Lin lots of credit for (apparently) taking his interpretation to the outside, being the boldest in individualizing his performance. The disadvantage with this kind of judgment is, when just becoming familiar with a piece, hearing such different takes as Kramer's and Hong's first and second, and back to back, keeps the listener from deciding who has come closer to revealing its essence.

On the rest of the mini-recitals: Leon Kirchner's knotty "Interlude II" toggled beguilingly between fast and slow, agitated and subdued, sometimes within the same phrase, as Hong introduced me to it. I would fault his program only for not having a third piece to construct a sort of three-legged stool for his artistry to rest upon. Lin, for example, featured only one other composer, but his traversal of six George Gershwin songs from the Song Book (1932) displayed so much variety that a fuller assessment of him was possible.

The composer's note in that publication advises: "The more sharply the music is played, the more effective it sounds." I'm guessing Gershwin meant "sharp" in the sense of a "sharp dresser" — someone with flair, an assertive attitude, on the verge of dressing "loud." In any case, there was a little too much teasing and coyness in Lin's interpretation for me. This was a fussy dresser in many places, too self-regarding to come across as straightforwardly "sharp." Yet I was thrilled by Lin's "I Got Rhythm," especially when that bold ascending line in the bass gave way to a final statement of the tune poked out by the left-hand index finger.

Kramer's choice of Aaron Jay Kernis' "Morningsong and Mist" and Lowell Liebermann's "Presto feroce" movement from "Gargoyles" displayed exemplary variety. The former had a mesmerizing, mystical touch; the latter was characteristic of Liebermann in what might be called his "heavy-meta-Rach[maninoff]" manner. Both were outstandingly brought off. Kramer seems to have the ability to define just what he's about directly and no-nonsense, in the manner of Ashkenazy and the early Van Cliburn.

William Bolcom's "Nocturne" from "Twelve New Etudes, Book II" was Beyer's arresting choice of a centerpiece. He displayed control of tone and touch in a work whose repeated soft pattern is punctuated with accented single notes whose initial isolation takes on the appearance of a melody. Elliott Carter's "Catenaires" concluded Beyer's program brilliantly. The "clarity and dash" I noted in his playing in his Premiere Series concert were put to the test here. Beyer aced it. The application of those qualities was welded to technical mastery with astonishing bravura.

Peterson's entry after the Zaimont was Earl Wild's Virtuoso Etude on Gershwin's "The Man I Love," an adaptation that opened with a chorus for the left hand only and went on from there to collect too much lace and sugar. The conclusion to his mini-recital (and to the entire program) was much more satisfying: Samuel Barber in a rare grandstanding mood with the fourth movement — "Fuga: Allegro con spirito" — of his Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, op. 26. The layering and contrast of fugal voices, and the mastery of tone color, was astute throughout.

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