Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Pianist Liza Stepanova’s New Album Champions Brooding New Music by Immigrant Composers

As we’ve been seeing more and more over the last couple of years, many artists most closely associated with traditional classical repertoire have a not-so-secret passion for new music. Pianist Liza Stepanova lays claim to that cred with her new solo album E Pluribus Unum – streaming at Spotify – a collection reflecting her background as as an American immigrant. It’s mix of strikingly purposeful, accessible and rather dark works by her fellow immigrants, including several world premieres. Musically the takeaway is that if you think she’s good at, say, Tschaikovsky, wait til you hear this. And in a year where the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been committing crimes against humanity by forcibly performing hysterectomies on refugee women,, the album takes on even greater relevance.

She opens with An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood, a brooding, steadily Chopinesque, chromatically biting miniature by Lera Auerbach. Kamran Ince’s partita Symphony in Blue is a study in stabbing acerbity versus calm, spacious, often mysterious resonance, with a little inside-the-piano flitting. Stepanova’s carnivalesque music-box upper register work is enabled by what sounds like tacks on the hammers.

Chaya Czernowin‘s Fardance Close has the same dichotomy, flickering highs in contrast with low rumbles and even more suspense. Stepanova next tackles two selections from Reinaldo Moya’s South American refugee suite The Way North. The first, La Bestia, follows scrambling upward tangents which grow more allusively ominous. The second, Rain Outside the Church has artful contrast between high pointillisms and more enveloping, low-midrange variations: Debussy is the obvious reference.

The point of Anna Clyne‘s On Track, a surreally produced, propulsively chiming electroacoustic theme and subtle variations, is that change is constant, like it or not: the ending is completely unexpected. Mool, a Lake Michigan tableau by Eun Young Lee, has strikingly understated, spaciously nocturnal phrasing and a distant, austere glitter: it’s one of the album’s most memorable moments.

Badie Khaleghian‘s triptych Táhirih the Pure, dedicated to the tragic 19th century feminist mystic, begins with The Day of Alert, a dynamically-charged, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged prelude built around an uneasily circling lefthand riff. Part two, Unchained is assembled around the album’s most persistent trope, high/low contrasts, in this case magnified by dissociative rhythms. The conclusion, Badasht is a sort of mirror image of the introduction, Stepanova nimbly tackling the daunting, insistent pointillisms ringing out over moody resonance.

Piglia, by Pablo Ortiz is part pensive prelude, part a more subtle take on what Kachaturian did with his Sabre Dance. Stepanova closes the record with Gabriela Lena Frank‘s rather wryly phantasmagorical Karnavalito No. 1. All of this is as thoughtfully and intuitively played as it is programmed. Let’s look forward to the day we get the chance to see Stepanova continue in this very auspicious direction, onstage, in front of an audience!

October 4, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Picturesque New Album and a Williamsburg Show From a Classical Piano Adventurer

Liza Stepanova’s new album Tones & Colors is not about synesthesia. Instead, the pianist explores the connection between visual art and classical music from across the centuries via an ambitiously vast, meticulously played range of works beginning with Bach and ending in our time with George Crumb. She’s playing the album release show this Jan 6 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25. Considering that she’s sold out Carnegie Hall in the past, picking up a ticket now wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Stepanova smartly programs the album as she would a concert. It opens with a triptych of Spanish composers, followed by a quartet of pieces devoted to nature and impressionism. From there she makes her way through music influenced by art from previous eras, then gives the album a comfortable finale and a surprising encore.

She opens on a boisterous note with Granados’ The Strawman. Stepanova’s emphatic wave motion as the waltz picks up steam makes perfect sense considering that the piece is inspired by Goya’s painting The Straw Manikin, which depicts a group of women throwing a stuffed man back and forth. Is there cynical battle-of-the-sexes commentary in the music as well? That’s hard to say, but there’s humor and more than a hint of sarcasm in this performance.

Bury Them And Be Silent, from Moroccan-born composer Maurice Ohana’s 1944 suite Three Caprices is one of the rare treasures here. Another piece inspired by Goya – in this case, a grim Napoleonic War-era tableau – is the inspiration. Stepanova takes the listener on a morose stroll to graveside shock and then back – it’s arguably the high point of the album. Then she cascades, ripples and lingers in the colorful battle imagery of a Turina work inspired by a Velasquez celebration of medieval Spanish conquest.

Another rarity began as a collaboration between 19th century German composer Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) and her painter husband Wilhelm, who illustrated her score. Stepanova’s agent could license this to innumerable horror or suspense films: its broodingly circling, baroque-tinged ilnes compare with anything any composer of soundtracks is doing in a neoromantic vein these days.

Stepanova makes jaunty work of Martinu’s Butterflies in the Flowers, which draws on the lepidopterous oeuvre of painter Max Švabinský. Debussy’s Goldfish ostensibly is not meant to be a depiction of fishbowl life but a musical attempt to mimic the layering often used in 19th century Japanese art: with a light touch on its machinegun rhythm, Stepanova maxes out its dynamics and contrasts.

Sculptor Heinrich Neugeboren once created a piece meant to capture a pivotal moment in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor, BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stepanova gives the opening segment a romantic treatment in contrast to the sculpture’s architecture. Then she has fun with the muted inside-the-piano voicings of George Crumb’s Giotto-inspired, characteristically mystical miniature, Adoration of the Magi.

The most obscure work on the album is a careful, Bach-inspired fugue, one of only a few compositions written by 20th century painter Lyonel Feininger. Stepanova closes this concert in a box with a lively, understatedly precise performance of Liszt’s solo piano version of Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser. The first of the encores is György Ligeti’s Etude No. 14,  parsing the geometrics of a column by sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi with cell-like boogie-woogie allusions. The final number is a selection from late Romantic composer Leopold Godowsky’s cheery musical homage to the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau. The album hasn’t officially hit the web yet, consequently, no streaming link – stay tuned!

December 28, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment