Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lisztmania Finally Starts to Make Sense

“All hands can play Liszt,” emcee David Dubal asserted in front of what appeared to be a full house Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall, introducing this season’s debut of pianist/impresario Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series.

“Yeah, right,” a fellow pianist in the crowd murmured to his friend. That opinion is widely held, often fueled by frustration at being unable to master the composer’s work, but also by the perception that Liszt’s notoriously challenging compositions are ostentatiously shallow. This year being the bicentenary of the composer’s birth, the Liszt tributes and retrospectives have been endless, and underwhelming. Which made this particular program such an eye-opener. Pianist Eric Clark also deserves credit for offering a revealing look at a different side of the composer a couple months ago; Joan’s take on Liszt was even more enlightening, especially since she played a handful of obscure pieces associated with the composer. Dubal may have had something to do with this, having been her teacher at Juilliard.

And he offered fresh insight into the program, providing a broader historical context as well as the history of the pieces themselves: Dubal is a big-picture guy, and a fearlessly unreconstructed Lisztian. The Valse-Impromptu that Joan opened with, he said, was a prototype for parlor music of its era. And it sounded like that, generically lively: it hasn’t aged well. But Joan has an ear for depth and a flair for the unconventional, so the choice of Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Fruhlingslaube was characteristically striking, a slowly expansive, meticulously paced pastorale. The Funerailles from Liszt’s Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, which followed, was a quiet, mournful knockout. Dubal reminded that this was a requiem for the freedom fighters who unsuccessfully fought in the Hungarian uprising of 1849. Restrained almost to the point of minimalism in places, fueled by a stark series of low lefthand riffs, it’s Chopinesque to a fault, rarely played, and Joan let it linger, powerfully: quiet as it is, it was the high point of the night. By contrast, she hit the Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F Minor – which she segued into artfully – with a hard-hitting scamper.

Dubal nailed it when he said that Schubert’s Der Doppelganger was “literally schizophrenic” – Joan played up its spacious, mysterious aspects. And she gave Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor a precision that managed to be biting without losing sight of its warm cantabile resonance, another quality that doesn’t exactly spring to mind when thinking of Liszt. The Valse-Caprice No. 2 after Schubert’s Soirees de Vienne was warm and bright, if not much more than simply a testament to Liszt’s loyalty as an advocate of Schubert at a time when that wasn’t exactly cool.

The final composition was the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust, “one of those crazy pieces,” as Joan alluded afterward, where any hope for any kind of interpretive insight bit the dust. Liszt’s arrangement is so elaborately showy that the opportunity to imbue it with soul, or poignancy – Joan’s signature traits – falls by the wayside. To simply get through it and get the notes all right is an achievement in itself. And that she did, an athletic feat made all the more impressive considering that the heavy action of the Bosendorfer she was playing probably would have given Art Tatum a workout. The result, predictably, was a series of standing ovations, ironic to the extreme considering the earlier part of the program was a far more noteworthy achievement. Should every pianist have some Liszt in his or her fingers, as Dubal suggested? A bit of the lesser-known Liszt, that Joan showcased so admirably here, couldn’t hurt.

And not only is Dubal a savvy historian, he’s also a painter, a very eclectic one. Adorning the walls here were a striking, El Greco-ish blue-green cathedral; a series of playful, glittery, Kandinsky-esque abstracts; an invitingly nebulous, colorful city tableau that could have been Paris’ Right Bank from the Pont Neuf; a couple of bucolic outdoors scenes with pre-medieval Asian tinges; an aggressively striking black-and-white work that could be a homage to Jackson Pollock; and even a handful of playful, simple drawings with a coy Keith Haring sensibility. Clearly, Dubal has watched as broadly and as deeply as he’s listened.

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December 17, 2011 Posted by | Art, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alexandra Joan Stuns and Surprises at WMP Concert Hall

There are innumerable cookie-cutter classical pianists out there. They do as their teachers tell them and play it safe. Most of the time, they succeed with what’s put before them, since the composers they play knew how to enable just about anyone with sufficient chops to get the job done, more or less. Then at the other extreme there are players who say, “To hell with dynamics, this is MY interpretation, my way or the highway!” Alexandra Joan is neither, and she doesn’t fit the middle ground either. What she does is distinctive, and stunningly intuitive, as her solo program Wednesday night at WMP Concert Hall so vividly reaffirmed. Joan is not only a musician, she’s also a scenemaker. Her ongoing Kaleidoscope Series – this season’s final concert is June 1 – brings together music, and sometimes art, and people, a diverse mix much younger than the typical Lincoln Center crowd. If this is one of classical music’s many possible futures, it’s something to look forward to.

This program’s theme was music by French composers, “Unconventional ways to feel or convey French culture,” Joan explained (she’s Romanian-French; she lives here). Focusing on the auspicious moment where Romanticism was busting out of its cocoon into Modernism, she opened with Faure’s Theme and Variations in C Sharp Minor, Op. 73. It’s a lot harder to play than it sounds, especially as the rather poignant, cantabile theme expands. Joan let its glittering moodiness speak for itself: the theme itself draws a straight line all the way back to Haydn, and she let that history resound, particularly throughout the expansive passage of high/low contrasts about three-quarters of the way in.

Enesco’s Sonata in F Sharp Minor, Op. 24, No. 1 was a showstopper, and an eye-opener. Joan is a leading advocate for the late Romantic composer who shares her heritage, “A visionary,” as she put it. Playing from memory, she took on its tense astringencies and restless unwillingness to resolve as if they were her own. In the repetitive, bruised pulse of the lefthand attack in the opening allegro, the twisted, staccato dance that builds to a galloping intensity in the second, presto movement and the walk through Monet’s back garden in the final andante, she gave it an otherworldly gravitas worthy of Debussy. The crowd was stunned.

The waves of intensity, if not the intellectual rigor, lifted for a minute with a handful of miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, who was in attendance. Still relatively young (he’s in his twenties) and amazingly prolific, Fairouz is a wide-ranging thinker with several considerably powerful, unselfconsciously deep works to his credit – and he can also be very funny. Joan assembled a set that was both amusing and captivating: an attempt to make an etude interesting, in a very successful, Schumann-esque way; a challenge to write a piece containing no dissonances (it was mostly arpeggios); a joke that began way up the scale and ended way down; an austere twelve-tone piece and a brief, vividly autumnal requiem.

She closed the concert with Ravel’s rippling Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written as a homage to Schubert, explaining that the wit and diversity of these pieces would make a good segue with Fairouz, and she was right. The suite is emotionally diverse, from balminess to poignancy to turbulence, with a comfortable sense of resolution missing from the rest of the program, a rather triumphant way to wrap up the concert. The audience wouldn’t let her go without an encore, so she treated them to a sparkling, bustling excerpt from Ravel’s Ondine.

Also worth a mention is Raphael Haik’s witty, pun-laden photo exhibit held in tandem with the concert. Toddlers in a fierce wrestle portrayed as “speed dating;” an airhead Eiffel Tower; park chairs arranged in several clever configurations, and an enigmatically bemused traveler who just missed his commuter train  delivered quietly provocative questions and plenty of laughs.

Alexandra Joan’s Kaleidoscope Series concludes its 2011 spring season at WMP Concert Hall, 31 W 28th St. on June 1 at 7:30 PM with a diverse program that includes both original works and improvisations, featuring jazz guitar virtuoso Peter Mazza, saxophonist Timothy Hayward and bassist Thomson Kneeland.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment