Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Intriguing Solo Piano Albums from Chris Donnelly and Bruce Levingston

It’s always risky to impute motives to art. What an audience might perceive as tragedy might actually be a portrayal of triumph…or vice versa. Misunderstandings like that are seldom so drastic or cut-and-dried. Is it possible that pianist Chris Donnelly’s new solo composition Metamorphosis ultimately portrays death by schlock, or by capitalism? Maybe. Whatever the case, it’s a pleasantly unpredictable, graceful ride. What’s known is that it’s based on Metamorphose, the classic M.C. Escher woodcut. What’s most impressive about the music is that it’s consistently interesting, since about 80% of the Escher work is the artist’s signature fish and birds morphing into each other, two-to-three-dimensional-and-back-again, trippy but utterly monotonous. Which is deliberate: with Metamorphose, Escher was attempting nothing less than a history of life on earth. Finally, as his endless succession of evolutionary leaps and dives approaches the edge of the canvas, a flock of predatory birds becomes a housing tract, followed by a city and at its edge, across a bridge, a solitary tower. Which is part of a chess game – and a checkmate scenario. The chessboard itself quickly fades into the protozoa that first appeared at the woodcut’s opposite edge. It’s not the most optimistic view of the future of humankind.

Donnelly starts out with an aptly simple, recurrent hook but quickly builds to a warm Neoromanticism occasionally spiced with a bluesy allusion or two and a little syncopation to deviate from the steady, four-on-the-floor rhythm and precise, attractively rippling melody that frequently evokes Robert Schumann. Most of the ten movements segue into each other, with only four full stops. As it goes on, Donnelly introduces a fugue and finally some staggered rhythm and atonalities, and a two-chord vamp that hints at the blues (and the Beatles). As the city begins to loom beneath the flock of birds, there’s a bit of jazz, which is worth the wait, giving Donnelly a welcome chance to let his righthand sail off with some long, expansively fluid upper-register passages.

But to be true to Escher, this bliss doesn’t last. It would be a plot spoiler to give away exactly how Donnelly gets back to the protozoa, but that’s where it all ends. Hint: a familiar theme or two are involved.

And speaking of Schumann, guess what came over the transom the other day: Heart Shadow, a brand-new recording of Schumann’s Kreisleriana along with excellent new works by Lisa Bielawa and Charles Wuorinen, recorded by pianist Bruce Levingston. Kreisleriana is part of the standard repertoire: its wry, playful, understated ironies and warm melodicism will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up with classical radio. For those unfamilar with the piece, it’s a seven-part suite inspired by a E.T.A. Hoffmann satire about an eccentric intellectual and his cat, both of whom simultaneously decide to write an autobiography. Of course, the man doesn’t know what the cat is up to: as you would expect, his furry friend is the hero of all this. This is not a high-octane performance, but an emotionally intuitive, dynamically charged one: in its quieter moments, Levingston caresses the keys, letting the composer’s subtle humor speak for itself.

The piece that really stands out here is Bielawa’s Elegy-Portrait, a tribute to singer Alexandra Montano,who shared a friendship as well as time onstage with both Bielawa and Levingston. It’s a portrait of someone who seems to have been both puckish and profound. As it unwinds, Levingston works poignant upper register accents while his left hand plumbs the depths, followed by a long, otherworldly glimmering, minimalist passage with exchanges of dynamics that grow hypnotic and insistent and eventually, inevitably fade down to just a heartbeat. And then all of a sudden it’s over. The Wuorinen work – the album’s title track- makes an apt segue, with a similarly spacious, methodical pacing, wary tonalities and utter lack of resolution. Levingston plays it with quiet confidence. For both performer and audience, the album offers the opportunity to creatively and memorably revisit some old friends.

September 10, 2011 - Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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