Alexandra Joan Tackles Mohammed Fairouz and Wins
“When Alexandra told me she was going to do a homage to me, it weirded me oout,” Mohammed Fairouz told the crowd at Friday’s opening installment of pianist Alexandra Joan’s reliably eclectic Kaleidoscope Series at WMP Concert Hall. That made sense, considering that previously featured composers included Brahms and Liszt. But Fairouz is one of this era’s most important, and astonishingly eclectic composers. That, and the fact that Joan probably just wanted a chance to play a lot of his music, which can be cruelly challenging, but is also great fun. This particular program featured a series of miniatures, songs and two towering piano sonatas.
Informed by a deep historical awareness, frequently imbued with edgy, dark humor, Fairouz’s music is unusually representational: seldom if ever has he written anything particularly abstract. So it was no surprise that this program featured poetry, from Keats and Wordsworth and also Wayne Koestenbaum, who served as narrator in between instrumentals, and two suites of songs delivered by Philip Stoddard. The baritone projects an ambered, cello-like resonance that he wields with great nuance: he is the antithesis of a cookie-cutter singer . At the end of a triumphantly anthemic, practically art-rock setting of Yeats’ The Stolen Child, he let the lyric trail off almost to silence, letting its ominous aspect linger. A little later on, he rose to the challenge of a series of more avant garde treatments of Koestenbaum poems and somehow managed to imbue the melodies’ knotty leaps and bounds with an actual singing quality. Throughout the songs, he worked the lyrics to match the mood, whether hushed and nocturnal, or wry and playful.
Joan opened the program with ten direrse, alternately intense and coyly romping miniatures A trio of menacingly chromatic, Satie-esque themes; a vividly wave-borne homage to Bargemusic, the Brooklyn chamber music haven; a jaunty tribute to Liberace; a sublimely ridiculous lefthand study in obviousness, and a wickedly incisive, Rachmaninovian prelude were some of the highlights.
She also played Fairouz’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Reflections on Exile, and Piano Sonata No. 2, The Last Resistance. The former is an ambitious triptych including an allusively elegiac homage to Fairouz’s mentor Edward Said – a talented pianist in his own right – along with a brooding, acid-washed interlude, Between Worlds, and a boisterous homage to Michael Gandolfi. The latter was a genuine showstopper and one of the most thoroughly enjoyable pieces of music to come out of anywhere in the past year. It’s a reflection on the Bush regime’s reign of terror in the wake of 9/11. “Dick Cheney was real – that actually happemed,” Fairouz took care to remind the crowd beforehand. Joan hit the chromatically-fueled opening theme with equal parts plaintiveness and fire, and then then brought out every bit of exasperation with a series of insistent F acccents (guess what that stands for) over ironic boogie-woogie, and then a savage caricature of Donald Rumsfeld which brought to mind Shostakovich’s portrait of Stalin in the Symphony No. 9. After the levity and diversity of the earlier part of the program, the stark minimalism of Freud Goes to Abu Graib and the rippling, alternately triumphant and apprehensive finale sent the crowd out on an exhilarating yet chilling note. Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series continues at WMP on Nov 2 at 7:30 PM in a duo performance with violinist Virgil Boutellis, featuring music of Brahms, Schumann and Paganini.
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