Jenny Q Chai’s Smart, Intuitive Carnegie Hall Debut
Pianist Jenny Q Chai’s Carnegie Hall debut last night was expertly programmed and packed with joie de vivre: she played as if she had a secret and couldn’t wait to share it with everybody. Her approach to a mix of premieres, 20th and 21st century compositions and an old High Romantic concert favorite matched fearsome technique to a confidently matter-of-fact emotional intelligence. When the material called for space, she let it linger, most notably (and amusingly) in one of the world premieres, Inhyun Kim’s Parallel Lines, a playfully rigorous study in parallelistic close harmonies punctuated by a Day in the Life-style sustained pause. The joke going around the hall was that Chai could have rubatoed it if she’d wanted to. And when she had to reach back for all the power and precision she could muster, whether for the cruelly difficult machine-gun staccato passages of Marco Stroppa’s Innige Cavatina (a US premiere), or the torrid, torrential rivulets of Debussy’s Etude No. 6, she awed the crowd with what seemed to be an effortless articulacy.
Yet despite the pyrotechnics, it was Chai’s sensitivity to color, timbre and emotion that resonated the most. She nailgunned the stratospherically high notes in Ashley Fu-tsun Wang’s Current (another world premiere), but let the murky, contrasting depths speak for themselves. It was arguably the high point of the night, icily misty tonalities in a rather Rachmaninovian architecture, alternating between spacious minimalism and jaunty flair. And when Chai reached the final variation on the opening theme, she let it go out on a quietly brooding note which packed quite a wallop.
Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya was a mixed bag: Chai handled its herky-jerky, explosive clusters with aplomb and then seemed to revel in its low, stalking basslines, one of the piece’s high points: it could have been a hit single, so to speak, if Messiaen had only edited it down to the juicy passages. And even a wardrobe malfunction didn’t distract Chai from from expertly negotiating the juxtaposition between jarring dissonance and comfortable resonance in a couple of Kurtag miniatures, Quiet Talk with the Devil and Les Adieux, both selections from his Jaketok suite. After all this harshness, Schumann’s Kreisleriana was dessert, and Chai played it as as bittersweet reminscence rather than nostalgia: her phrasing throughout it, whether the rivulets of the main theme, the stately requiem of sorts, or the closing waltz, was judiciously terse, a fitting elegy for Schumann’s old friend from literature. The crowd roared for an encore and got two: the first, an unfamiliar, fluid miniature that would have made a good theme for the PBS special Springtime in Alaska (or the equivalent), the second a John Cage vocal number that she tapped out on the piano lid as she sang.