Jenny Q Chai Captures a Moment in New York History
In a mighty stroke of coincidence, or the kind of luck that an artist would never wish on an audience, Jenny Q Chai sure picked the right program for her Poisson Rouge debut last night. In the low lights of the downstairs space, less than 48 hours after it reopened in the wake of the hurricane, the pianist went into Lynchian mode and stayed there for pretty much the duration of her concert. Maybe the effect was enhanced by having just come from Zirzamin around the corner – a Twin Peaks room if there ever was one – but all of downtown has been in a surreal, uneasy mood since the storm. Chai captured it perfectly, a mix of ambitious contemporary solo works along with some unexpected relief that blended in seamlessly even as it contrasted with the rest of the program. This wasn’t about pyrotechnics: it was about the mist afterward.
Chai began with Satie’s Three Gymnopedies, whose ghoulish nuances are as difficult to capture as the notes themselves are easy to play. She took the easy route with them, straightforwardly hinting at waltz time. Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11 made a perfect segue, ramping up the chilly, surreal nocturnal ambience. Another Klavierstücke, this one by Stockhausen, was next on the bill, but instead, an attractively fugal melody wafted from the piano. Did Stockhausen ever go for baroque and comedic? It wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility, but it became clear from a glance at the program that these were in fact genuine Scarlatti pieces. True to form, Chai did the two sonatas totally straight-up without any kind of dancing lilt. What happened to Stockhausen? Turns out that Chai had nixed the work since there was already plenty of heavy stuff on the bill.
The rest of the program was nocturnes, more or less. Marco Stroppa’s Innnige Cavatina utilized muted notes and plucking inside the piano to enhance the otherworldly lunar ambience; Chai reverted to the same atmosphere a bit later with Andre Bouchorechliev’s Orion III. Nils Vigeland’s Barcarolle, from Life Sketches, etched a more spacious and suspenseful deep-space tableau with its muxic box tonalities and muted low lefthand notes creating a sound like a Fender bass: for a minute or two, Chai was a one-woman band. She closed with the Chopin Barcarolle, which is as far from Twin Peaks as this city is. But even this lullaby got a cautious understatement, perhaps a conscious allusion to the moment’s persistent unease, perhaps not. The audience – larger than expected under the circumstances – refused to let Chai leave without an encore, so she sang them Victoria Jordanova’s Prayer, a simple and vividly anxious piece with lyrics in several languages, and then sent everyone home on a peaceful note with Child Falling Asleep, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.
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