Thursday, November 7, 2019

American Pianists Association celebrates a major milestone of its history putting young pianists in the spotlight

Reaching across four decades of piano music in Indianapolis, on Wednesday the American Pianists Association brought back at Indiana Landmarks Center six of its top  competition winners to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

For a long time, the APA, established in 1979 as the Beethoven Foundation, de-emphasized the competitive aspect, preferring to present its participants to the public as festival programming from which honors happened to emerge.

Jonathan Shames stressed the newness of Copland.
But a focus on winners was inevitable, partly as a way to drive audience and donor interest in the organization. So that's where the spotlight shone at the APA's first "Grand Encounters" concert of the 2019-2020 season. To emphasize the legacy, two of the six pianists brought back to town were the pioneers in their two categories: Jonathan Shames (classical, 1981) and Jim Pryor (jazz, 1992).

Their appearances were notable for the projection of personality. In both cases, there was a strong retrospective flair to their recital choices and how they performed them. Shames chose to present an Aaron Copland work on the high plain of modernism, Piano Variations (1930). This work was the summit achievement of a composer who later founded a more palatable "Americanist" subgenre, perhaps in response to the populism generated by the Great Depression.

On Wednesday, Shames' performance maximized the dissonance and shattering resonance of Copland's angular theme and its variety of treatment. Other interpretations known to me have connected the work more purely to the tradition of piano variations, perhaps wanting to show its heritage from Beethoven and Brahms. I found the Shames version also respectful of the structure, but more vivid in color and accent than the recordings I know best, by Beveridge Webster and Leo Smit. It was a performance of avant-garde mien honoring the composer of whom the conductor Walter Damrosch had said from the podium several years earlier about about the aggressive modernism of he Organ Symphony: "Within five years he will be ready to commit murder."

Aaron Diehl played Lewis and Williams.
To music lovers more attached to the Copland of "Appalachian Spring," "Rodeo" and "The Red Pony," Piano Variations may seem more like a period piece than a milestone of American modernism. With due respect to them, I want to bracket Jim Pryor's performance of three pieces with a comparable period flavor in the jazz genre. Pryor is known among followers of APA contests as the man who beat out the since-eminent Brad Mehldau. His amiable stage manner and nostalgic evocation of jazz piano history showed its  survival value Wednesday night.

Pryor opened with an original composition honoring the muse of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a short-lived black poet whose output, like Robert Burns', was divided between dialect poems and verse in standard English of a romantic, lyrical sort. "When Malindy Sings" falls into the former category, and Pryor's work evoked the steady faith of Dunbar's lady and the respect her singing earned her. He then turned to Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," giving a dance-like nimbleness to the tune that refreshingly went beyond the waltz form without abandoning it.  He closed with the Ellington evergreen "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

The program's other jazz winner, 2011's Aaron Diehl, went for a subtler, softer representation of his gifts. Hushed sonorities dominated his more substantial selection, two movements from Marianne Williams' "Zodiac Suite," with the climax, "Virgo," affording the audience excursions into the brighter side of his palette. He had reintroduced himself to the Indianapolis audience with John Lewis' tender "Milano"(after a cheeky turn at the center's organ for the start of J.S. Bach's best-known organ piece).

1993 winner Lori Sims opened the concert with a riveting account of Chopin's Polonaise in F-sharp minor, op. 44. It seemed overpedaled at first, but soon settled into a more balanced proportion of sound production, from nuanced and reflective to the martial vigor of the main theme. Thomas Rosenkranz, who captured honors in 2003, was another fully invigorated performer as he delivered a knotty etude by Gyorgy Ligeti. Its influence, of simultaneous voices and rhythms meshing despite centrifugal forces, could be detected in his original variations on one of the best-known Beethoven variation movements, the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. I liked the way he had figuration spin out from the theme in an integral manner, and with such stylistic excursions as a loping jazzlike episoide.

Popular 2017 classical winner Drew Petersen sat down beside honorary chair Marianne Tobias for a couple of four-hand Slavonic Dances by Antonin Dvorak. The coordination, especially with tempo adjustments in the Allegretto grazioso (Dumka) in E minor, op. 72, no. 2, was alluring and exquisitely managed. Petersen returned in the second half to show some of his range in expressive clarity, rhythmic zest and a feeling for color with performances of Debussy's "Clair de lune" and the knuckle-busting fugal finale of Barber's Piano Sonata in E-flat minor.

His performance was a microcosm of the variety of excellence APA has brought to the fore over the past four decades. It's an achievement well worth celebrating.

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