Saturday, December 1, 2018

Bells to the forefront in guest pianist's Butler University recital

The Advent season bears unmistakable associations with bells and their sounds' heralding function.
Tuyen Tonnu, a guest at Butler, focused on solo piano music evoking bells.
So the calendar bears an appropriate resonance with the theme of Tuyen Tonnu's piano recital Friday evening at Butler University.

The pianist, associate professor at Illinois State University, rang the changes on the theme —from Oliver Knussen to Modest Mussorgsky. The composer whose aesthetic rests squarely on bell and chime sounds, the Estonian Arvo Pärt, was not represented, but the survey was nonetheless far-reaching and suggestive of the many ways tintinnabulation can serve the art of music.

The most obvious link is that, like bells, the piano depends upon striking and the subsequent fading of the sound produced (sustained or snuffed by the pedal in the case of the piano). Tonnu seems to be an artist particularly inspired by sound, and is likely to be a rewarding Debussy pianist as well.

It's not surprising that the repertoire on this recital has little to do with development in the traditional sense, because the manipulation of a piece's material serves how we process resonance and repetition instead of the rhetorical structures of the classical tradition. In this program, the most traditional piece, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," subjects the recurring Promenade theme to varied treatment. But otherwise each "picture" is a self-contained miniature, with the program's thematic emphasis delayed until the finale, "The Great Gate of Kiev."

Immediately inviting was the diptych Tonnu designed to open the recital, contrasting Oliver Knussen's "Prayer Bell Sketch," op. 29, with the "Noel" movement of Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt regrards sur l'enfant-Jésus." The discrete temple-bell sonorities of the former piece, written in memory of Toru Takemitsu, contrasted with the cathedral-tower clangor of the French composer's music, typically rich in overlaid sound. (The British composer-conductor Knussen, by the way, will no doubt inspire memorial pieces himself, as he died in July, contrary to the printed program.)

The durable George Crumb  was thus the recital's sole living composer, due to reach 90 next year. "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979," generated by admiration for pictures much older than the ones that fueled Mussorgsky's imagination, is based on a couple of frescoes in Padua painted in 1305 by Giotto. The seven-part suite takes off from the generating idea to explore Christmas mysteries. It made use of strummed and stopped piano-string sound fused to keyboard playing, in a way reminiscent, though less flamboyant, of Crumb's "Makrokosmos" suites.

The lyrical outreach of the suite is modest to begin with, after the transfiguration implied by "The Visitation," the opening movement. The bell theme is pronounced as the suite gets under way, followed by the gentler lullaby and retrospective "Shepherd's Noel." "The Adoration of the Magi" is one of those glorious star-sparkled Crumb excursions, succeeded by the brightly accented vigor of "Nativity Dance," to which Tonnu lent an extraordinary sensitivity to the spectrum of attack and release. Strummed strings accompanied a muted application of the Coventry Carol ("Lullay, lullay"), typical of Crumb's gift for apt quotation.  Again, there was reinforcement of the recital's theme in the finale, "Carol of the Bells," capped by a fully indulged long fadeout.

The recitalist's affinity for the program's least-known composer, Hans Otte, was displayed in two movements from "The Book of Sounds." Through arpeggiation in the first and bell-like resonance in the second, the music invites the listener to be "at one with the sound," as Tonnu said in her oral program note. The work seemed a rather dogged illustration urging us to recall, as it did at least for me, W.H. Auden's reminder in his elegy for W.B. Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valleys of its saying." Otte's music strives to make the listener comfortable lingering in the valleys of its saying. I had a little trouble lingering there.

Of Mussorgsky's suite, not much needs to be said. It was distinctly a plus that Tonnu's playing didn't bring to my inner ear Ravel's too-familiar orchestration, except for the mischievous ghost of the muted trumpet nattering like the beggar in "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle." I particularly admired the piano-centric lyricism she imparted to "The Old Castle," with some detachment applied to the melody that set aside the memory of Ravel's mellifluous saxophone solo.

Her emphasis on Mussorgsky's spiky harmonies upheld his unconventionality, which is sometimes misinterpreted as amateurism. The Promenade variation in the sepulchral "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" was marvelously detailed and a thoughtful prelude to the tumult of "The Hut of Baba-Yaga," which featured Tonnu's similarly thoughtful transition back to the main theme. And, of course, nothing was skimped in evoking Russia's enchantment with bells in "The Great Gate of Kiev."

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