Piano Pleasure, plus Music Old and New

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Saturday had me diving head-first into BOTH festivals at the rate of three events in six hours, despite a good start on my usual chronic festival sleep deficit (I was up rather late reviewing Louise)! I need only tell you about two of them here, since there’s already a review up (insert link) online of New Trinity Baroque’s 3 p.m. concert at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church. It’s part of Piccolo’s ever-worthwhile Early Music Series. This crack outfit will be here through the 27th, so just GO — you simply gotta hear them!

But before that one happened, I showed up at the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall at noon for a mixed piano recital featuring five of Artist-in-Residence Enrique Graf’s students, all playing well-known works by Frederic Chopin. This was the first recital of many comprising C of C’s Young Artists Series — a regular Piccolo feature. The hall was pretty full — as it usually is for these events.

Kicking things off was David Keiser, playing Chopin’s Barcarolle — a flowing and evocative “boat” piece. Despite a few finger-slips, Keiser gave it a sweet and very expressive interpretation, maintaining the music’s gently rocking, waterborne sensation very nicely. Next up was Singapore native Chee Hang See, who offered the varied and exciting Ballade No. 3 — a rather tricky piece that I used to play myself, back when I had time to practice! Chee Hang gave a very smooth and elegant account of it, from a cool (but entirely agreeable) emotional perspective. This was one of the afternoon’s best performances — and, to think, he’s only just finished his freshman year (he’s also a virtuoso of the erhu, the Chinese fiddle).

But the star of the show came next — and he’s only a 14-year-old just out of eighth grade! Micah McLaurin has been studying with Graf for a little over a year, under the auspices of the College-affilated Charleston Academy of Music — and he’s either won or been a finalist in three prestigious piano competitions since last summer! I’ve blogged about him before.

Anyway, he performed the deep and fearsomely difficult Ballade No. 4 to near-perfection, dealing coolly with its technical challenges while plumbing its depths straight from the heart. This supremely gifted young man plays at a level of virtuosity, musicality and emotional intensity that you simply can’t imagine until you hear him for yourself.

Some lighter fare followed, at the hands of Uruguayan student Jesus Manuel Toro. He delivered three of Chopin’s waltzes — two of them among the composer’s brightest and most exuberant works (and NOT meant to be danced to). He missed some notes here and there, but still brought the music off with spirit and flair. The final performance was also the longest: Chopin’s famous “Funeral March” sonata (No. 2), in its entirety, courtesy of Artist Certificate Program student Lisa Lee. She pulled it off with power, passion and flashing fingerwork, ending the recital on a triumphant note.

After my mid-afternoon Baroque interlude at First Scots, I ended up right back at the Simons Center hall at 5 p.m. for the first of this year’s four Music in Time series concerts (cut back from five events last year). These eclectic programs explore where serious music is now — and where it’s going. While it’s hardly the festival’s most popular series, it reliably attracts Spoleto’s hard-core avant-garde faithful, plus a sprinkling of curious listeners with adventurous ears. Director John Kennedy never fails to bring us the very best of what’s out there.

The first of the program’s two works was The Bulls of Bashan, a violin concerto by British composer Gavin Bryars: one of today’s real “cult composers.” Kennedy introduced it to us, describing it as a contemporary update of Vaughan Williams’ well-known The Lark Ascending, scored (like this one) for solo violin and string orchestra. Like that lovely work, this one is more lyrical than virtuosic; more a piece of texture and effect than of melody.

Like the Vaughan Williams, it remained mostly smooth and pastoral throughout. But the music turned out to be highly original, with its very different post-minimalist style and harmonic structure. It also had a subtly fearful edge to it in places, bearing out Kennedy’s earlier description of the music as a reflection of “seeking spiritual shelter in a dangerous place.”

Soloist Heather Wittels — like the twenty-odd other string players — came courtesy of the Spoleto Festival orchestra. And their playing was absolutely top-notch. Wittels was superb, offering lush tone and sweet sentiment as her notes floated sweetly over a soft bed of shimmering sound.

The final number was Cruel Sisters, by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe: also a legend of sorts in modern music circles. While it’s also a post-minimalist creation, it stood in considerable contrast to the previous piece, even though it’s also scored for string orchestra. It’s much more rhythm-driven music (a-la pop), and full of more blatant negative vibes.

Inspired by one of those grisly ancient English legends (jealous sister bumps off the sibling who stole her man), the music radiates a wide range of negative moods and feelings. Its droning, hypnotic pulses sounded edgy, spooky and full of menace. Upward-swooping glissandi contributed to an incredible buildup of sinister tension. Very effective and chilling stuff: parts of it would sound just right in a good horror flick.

Thus ended (except for the writing) my first full festival day — and it was a great one.

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