Impressive Pianists Conclude Young Artists Series
CHOPIN’s MUSIC, especially his piano music, has a signature quality that is hard to describe, but you know it as ‘Chopin’ (1810-1849) when you hear it. Which, of course, poses a challenge for pianists. Do they make it ‘the same’ or do they try to make it ‘their own’ and run the risk of ruining it?
One of the refreshing things about listening to Micah McLaurin play Chopin―or anything for that matter―is that this is not a question. He just goes right into the music. He doesn’t think about trying to play ‘Chopin’ or about approaching it differently, on purpose, from someone else. He just plays with as much heart and soul (and muscular technique) as he can muster.
Not accidentally, the result is that Micah ends up capturing the essence of Chopin’s combination of multi-textured sounds, delicate sensitivity, and rich, romantic expressiveness―all without even knowing much about the context of the piece itself or what inspired it. Can you imagine the sounds that are going to come from his piano when he is as much a master of the musicology as he is of the keyboard?
In the final Piccolo Spoleto concert of the Young Artists Series at the College of Charleston, Micah opened the program with Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, commonly known as his “Funeral March” due to its distinctive third movement. (Interestingly, the first funeral that this work whose third movement would be performed at was the composer’s, at the age of 39, 12 years after he wrote it. It would also be played at Stalin’s, Brezhnev’s, and John f. Kennedy’s funerals.)
The first movement opens with a blaze of continuous notes whose fury is soon quieted and resolved, but leaving an underlying trace of darkness. Then, instead of a traditionally slow second movement, comes a Scherzo full of Chopin’s recognizable melodic charm, followed by the ‘slow’ movement march.
The drum-beat march is ominous and haunting. Its rhythmical pulse dominates the beginning and end of the movement. In the middle―in striking contrast―we hear a sweet, dreamy passage, as though the deceased is being remembered with a loving, aching melancholy. The fourth movement, like the first, unleashes another torrent of notes, this time at jet speed. It is a magnificent burst of energy and musicality that Micah handled with his usual strength and aplomb.
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During World War II, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote his three ”War Sonatas.”. According to Wikipedia, the second of these, Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major (known as the “Stalingrad”), was composed in 1942 during the period of the bloody and decisive struggle for that city. Prokofiev was not a soldier, but he had been experiencing a bloodbath of his own that included the political imprisonment and death of a close colleague, along with the murder of that man’s wife. In the midst of all this, he was, ironically, asked to write a 60th birthday celebration song for Stalin.
Some say that Sonata No. 7, which “contains some of Prokofiev’s most dissonant music for the piano” expresses Prokofiev’s real feelings at the time. An unremitting sense of anger, doom, and revolt certainly infuses all three movements which feel like both a record of, and a statement about, the whole state of affairs at that time.
As lugubrious as all this was, and as heavy as the music sounds, Irwin Jiang brought to it a vitality of playing that kept the work, not just aloft, but fantastic. Irwin seems to be, it is fair to say, addicted to a combination of complexity and speed―a tandem he always manages with dexterity, clarity, and poise. Nowhere was this more evident than in the third movement (Precipitato) which is “considered by some to be one of the most brilliant toccatas ever written” and which “culminates in a furious recapitulation of the main theme, taxing all ten fingers to the utmost, until the piece finally ends triumphantly in a thundering cascade of octaves.” (Wikipedia)
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Like Irwin, sophomore Diego Suárez does not shy away from complex, difficult works either. In fact, the higher the mountain and the rougher the terrain, the more Diego likes it. Continuing with Prokofiev, he played the first movement of Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, with Luis Hernández providing the “orchestral” sections on a second piano.
What a life Prokofiev had. Again, this piece was inspired by a death: this time the suicide of a musical friend of his who left a farewell note to Prokofiev. Hence its heaviness and sense of uncontrolled emotional abandonment―both of which were, and still can be, disturbing to audiences.
The work “remains one of the most technically formidable piano concertos in the standard repertoire. Prokofiev biographer, David Nice, noted in 2011: “A decade ago I’d have bet you there were only a dozen pianists in the world who could play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto properly. Argerich wouldn’t touch it, Kissin delayed learning it, and even Prokofiev as virtuoso had got into a terrible mess trying to perform it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s.” (Wikipedia)
Those comments speak to the technical challenges of this work, while the music itself speaks to the challenge of trying to corral its free-formed storminess. No matter. The “Music Whisperer,” Diego Suárez, harnessed it with ease and brought to light Prokofiev’s inherent dignity and majesty which, despite repeatedly oppressive circumstances, always found their way in his music.
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What a finale this was for the Young Artists Series. What a testament to the talent of these pianists. And what a reflection of their mentor, Enrique Graf, who put all the programs together. As he said, these performances are the best gauge of progress for his students, whose deserved standing ovations say it all.