Pianist Robert McDonald Performs at CofC IPS

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pianist Robert McDonald

THE INTERNATIONAL PIANO SERIES of the College of Charleston Department of Music continued last Tuesday night with another of its remarkably talented guest performers: Robert McDonald, an artistically astute pianist and inspiring teacher.

McDonald is on the piano faculty at New York’s Juilliard School of Music and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. He has performed with renowned orchestras and has been a recital partner with violinists such as Isaac Stern and an array of international string ensembles. His teachers have included the likes of Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin, Meczyslaw Horszowski, and Gary Graffman.

Opening with two preludes and fugues from J. S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Klavier,”—which McDonald considers seminal for instruction—he immediately proved his insight into the eighteenth-century musical idiom.

Closing the first half of this concert was a dramatic, fully realized interpretation of Johannes Brahms’ “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel,” Op. 24. McDonald caught the spirit of Brahms’ youthful ability to work with musical material from a previous time. Technically demanding and requiring the deft touch of a master keyboardist, this work is rarely heard in concert.

The second half of the two-hour presentation featured three composers who have little in common, but whose compositional style McDonald captured with grace and intelligence.

Carl Nielesen, not everybody’s favorite modern composer, received as sensitive a rendition as I’ve ever heard. In lieu of written program notes, McDonald’s explanation made more accessible Nielesen’s “Three Piano Pieces,” Op.59. We learned that Nielesen made an attempt to find a tonal center for these three short works of the early twentieth century. I did indeed hear what McDonald prepared me to hear: the “comfort and familiarity” of one E-flat major chord and the ending C major chord providing a welcome resolution.

Four of Claude Debussy’s pieces from “Preludes Book 1” included two of his better known works: “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and “The Engulfed Cathedral.” McDonald gave new lyricism and scope to the impressionistic aural images. Gabriel Faure’s “Valse Caprice # 2 in D-flat major,” Op. 38 had its moments, but even he couldn’t rescue it from mediocrity.

McDonald’s ability to bring to life these uniquely different works stands unmatched. He offered a superior performance in each of these complex creations.

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