Eric Clark Triumphs in IPS Finale

Friday, April 8, 2011

THE COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON’s excellent International Piano Series wrapped up its season in style with Eric Clark’s most impressive recital Tuesday at the Memminger Auditorium. Clark, a former student of IPS director Enrique Graf at Carnegie Mellon University, is in the process of launching a promising career, with several significant competition successes to his credit as well as appearances at prestigious venues.

Clark began his interesting (and demanding) program with a smooth and elegant traversal of J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810. Despite the title’s “English” attribution, the suite consists of seven movements reflecting French dance-forms. In keeping with its minor key, the prevailing moods are mostly on the anxious or somber side, though the pair of “passepieds” present contrasts with their somewhat lighter and more upbeat fare. Clark’s playing offered exemplary pace, precision and finger-independence, with tasteful and well-placed ornamentation and an almost improvisatory style that serves Bach’s music well.

Next came the concert’s greatest treat, at least to my hungry ears… and I should add that my ears are always hungry for the hard-hitting music of Franz Schubert, the composer of my heart. His stupendous Wanderer Fantasy, D. 760, is—by far—the most virtuosic music he ever wrote for piano. Schubert’s larger-scale piano compositions, while never easy to play, are rarely cast as bravura showpieces (like this one); one reason is that the composer was definitely not a virtuoso pianist. But he outdid himself quite literally in this one; he was reportedly quite vexed that he was incapable of playing the piece well himself.

Pianist Eric Clark

And no wonder: the work—cast in four continuous sections—is a fearsome welter of piano pyrotechnics based loosely on a number of themes, with the major motif coming from Schubert’s earlier Art-song, “Der Wanderer.” Clark dealt decisively with the pounding rhythmic drive of the opening movement—but reverted easily to sweet, yet vibrant lyricism in the following Adagio section. He then took us on a (typically Schubertian) manic-depressive roller coaster ride through the final two sections, dealing beautifully with the composer’s hallmark abrupt mood-swings and incredibly varied diversions of form and style. He built things up to a fevered pitch in the blazing coda, bringing the house down with his smashing final chords.

After intermission, Clark returned to deliver some of Claude Debussy’s most rarely-heard piano creations: three of his twelve, forbiddingly difficult Etudes, written late in the impressionist master’s life. Their difficulty is not the only reason these pieces are seldom performed in concert: they are also regarded as some of the most abstruse and “academic” music he ever wrote. But you’d never know that from the way Clark brought the music to vivid life. He impressed with his deft execution of the first—“Pour les Tierces” (number two of the set): a coruscating study in speedy thirds that took him all over the keyboard. His rare musicality was especially apparent in the next—“Pour les Quartes” (number three): a more lyrical and reflective exercise in parallel fourths. Then he let out all the stops in “Pour les Accords,” the twelfth of the set—staying in tempo even in the face of the piece’s treacherous high-speed octave-leaps.

The evening’s novelty came with four excerpts from Le Mat (XXII Arcana), a 22-piece work that Clark commissioned from his friend, the young American composer Christian Kriegeskotte. The individual pieces correspond to the 22 “major arcana” cards of the classic Tarot deck: the mystical ancient fortune-telling system. The music came across as rather avant-garde, yet cunningly structured and quite approachable. The second selection was especially appealing, with its slow and stately opening section leading into a heady and stimulating fugue. Kriegeskotte could hardly have asked for a better champion.

Clark ended his recital with a pronounced bang, thanks to his glittering go at Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petroushka: the composer’s own piano reduction (commissioned by mega-pianist Artur Rubinstein) from his well-known Petroushka ballet score. No doubt realizing that he was transcribing his music for a peerless virtuoso, Stravinsky loaded his transcription with plenty of pianistic bravura, producing an ear-boggling showpiece that Rubinstein played often in concert, yet never recorded. Clark managed brilliant execution throughout, perfectly capturing Stravinsky’s ingeniously quirky structures and headlong rhythmic drive.

Many pianists would consider this music to be a risky way to end a recital—but not Clark. His faith in both the music and his own ability to deliver it well paid off in the form of an immediate and spontaneous standing “O” from the substantial and appreciative crowd. Three clamoring curtain calls—alas–failed to earn an encore from our clearly exhausted artist. But, given the punishing nature of Clark’s strenuous program, most of us no doubt felt that he deserved a break!

Oh—and, being the season’s final IPS recital, next season’s array of pianists was unveiled—and a choice array it is. We’ll be enjoying the artistry of Taiwan’s Long Piano Duo (sisters Beatrice and Christina), America’s Sean Kennard, Germany’s Sebastian Knauer, and Israel’s Ilana Vered. AND—in keeping with the IPS tradition of occasionally bringing us the legendary pianists who’ve been around for half-a-century or more (like Leon Fleisher, Abbey Simon, or Earl Wild), we’ll get the rare chance to revel in the deep and joyous music-making of American master Menahem Pressler (now 88), whose primary fame rests on his near-mythic status as pianist for the exalted Beaux Arts Trio since the 1950’s. I’m already counting the days.

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