Monday, October 4, 2021

We love a piano: Five pianists of distinction help APA welcome back its public

American Pianists Association, poised on the brink of a new era with a new CEO and recent evidence that it can run one of its competitions under pandemic constraints, opened its 2021-22 season Sunday afternoon presenting a spectrum of young pianists it has honored over the years. "Welcome Back!" shouted the program title.

Frederic Chiu's link with APA goes back decades. 

Earliest honoree in the group that took the Indiana Landmarks Center stage one by one was Frederic Chiu, who won his award in 1985, when APA was known as the Beethoven Foundation. Chiu grew up in Indianapolis and studied with the fondly remembered Dorothy Munger. He provides a kind of role model of building a career as a concert pianist imaginatively and interactively.

Among his distinctions Sunday, he used a chair rather than an artist's bench, a touch of individuality that also made him stand out at the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where a number of observers (including me) thought he deserved to advance further than the jury decreed. The chair was presumably not a factor.

On Sunday, Chiu brought the program up to intermission  with his canny arrangements of two movements from Sergei Prokofiev's popular "Lieutenant Kije Suite." He has had a long affinity with Prokofiev's music, given permanent status by his attention on recordings to lesser-known works of the Soviet master. "Romance" and "Troika" are two catchy, melodic excerpts to which Chiu has honored Prokofiev's mastery of both solo piano and orchestra. The rat-a-tat-tat of the "Troika" was crisply represented by his nimble right hand. Chiu opened with Debussy's "L'isle joyeuse," full of picturesque virtuosity that Chiu exploited naturally toward a quasi-orchestral breadth.

One of the most often-transcribed early pieces in the core repertoire is Bach's "Sheep may safely graze," originally a soprano aria. Spencer Meyer, the next-most-senior awards winner on the recital, presented an inviting performance of it, the melody boldly highlighted and a touch of mannerism about his interpretation. He concluded with a sometimes brisk, thoughtfully punctuated, and firmly projected performance of Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor.

Dan Tepfer, 2007 Awards winner during one of APA's jazz years, also turned to Bach. From "Goldberg Varations," he presented the Aria and several variations of the composer's own. This well-schooled musician received much acclaim for his 2011 CD of the complete work, with his improvised variations following Bach's. I continue to view the project with a jaundiced eye, believing this Tepferization to be better suited to instructional purposes than  the concert stage. It was mildly rewarding to note how he treated the second variation Sunday, dropping the left hand deep into the bass and making it more subtle, like a jazz "walking bass." In the recording, he foregrounds the somewhat stalking nature of Bach's bass to deliver a rather galumphing march that comes close to mockery. Maybe varying what he does, from veneration to parody, is essential to Tepfer's defense of his project, but artistically it strikes me as neither fish nor fowl. 

Kenny Banks Jr. was the other APA jazz luminary represented in "Welcome Back!" A 2019 finalist, he has a tendency to spread his interpretations of an announced source into other music. He is an instinctive suite-maker who fashions medleys or melanges on the spot. This was evident in his Indy Jazz Fest performance two weeks ago in Garfield Park.  On Sunday, he gradually got around to the announced Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Georgia on My Mind," then largely left it behind to spin out his thoughts on "Get Happy." I admired his wit and resourcefulness, but rather missed better focusing.

Joel Harrison has concluded two decades heading APA.
Wrapping up the show was another Kenny, APA's most recent honoree, 2021 Classical Awards winner Kenny Broberg. He opened with a spectacular performance of Scriabin's Sonata no. 5 in F-sharp major, getting its flashiness and impulsiveness right but somewhat shortchanging the mystery the score demands almost impossibly at times: How do you play a brief high-register figure "ecstatically"?  Staying balanced on such interpretive ledges must not be easy. He moved to a less well-known Russian composer, Nikolai Medtner, with solid performances of two "Forgotten Melodies," "Primavera" and "Danza festiva," displaying rhythmic acuity and evenness in defining the dense textures without blurring.

After such a lavish treat of jury-approved pianism, there was a long, well-deserved collection of tributes (including a mayoral proclamation and a gubernatorial Sagamore of the Wabash award) to APA CEO Joel Harrison, who retired in July after 20 years of guiding the organization. Peter Mraz, his successor, introduced him for some humble expressions of gratitude. There was also, appropriately, more piano-playing: two commissioned works performed by the composers. Tepfer played a well-designed, three-movement piece that seemed too long for the occasion; 2013 Classical winner Sean Chen offered "Daydream: Steps," a sweet, sentimental piece in pastels, relieved by vigorous passages. Affectionate representation of honoree Harrison was evident in both pieces: Qualities of  calm and intensity alike carried out necessary roles in helping the APA compile a praiseworthy history, and the legacy Harrison has shaped seems poised to continue its vitality.


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