Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reflections on Mosaic

Last Friday, I had the privilege of performing in the Mosaic recital held at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. The program was well received and all involved played exquisitely. The program consisted of two works for clarinet and piano (Brahms' Sonata Op. 120, No. 2 in Eb Major and Prelude #2 from Gershwin's Three Preludes), two for flute and piano ("Black Anemones" by Schwanter and Gary Shocker's Native American Suite), and trios by Sean Salamon and Mariano Oblios. To bring my recitals to a fitting closure, I like to reflect on the music performed as well as the performances themselves and see what I learned about myself, my playing, and music in general. Today, I'll share some of these thoughts with you.

Since most of my collaborative work has been with flute recently, it is not unusual that I have generally positive reactions to both pieces since I was heavily involved in their selection. While the Shocker was not a new piece for this program and is not extremely demanding technically, it is an audience pleaser and a charming work that I enjoy playing. Schwanter''s "Black Anemones" is a beautifully wrought work that is filled with challenges for the pianist. Much of the difficulty stems from the rhythmic precision required by both players. If either instrument stumbles in the slightest, there are few opportunities to find each other again due to the piano's perpetual motion and its repetitive figures. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary music in my opinion. The rhythmic complexity is unforgiving, but the sound often comes across as one that is without metrical structure. Sadly, many soloists approach these ethereal compositions without strict attention to the rhythms, pursuing their interpretation of the composer's desired effect instead. Such performances, often generated by repeatedly listening to a recording without thoroughly studying the score and its demands, can lead to shaky, unsatisfying performances. Fortunately, I was favored by the collaborative fairies on Friday night and everything of major importance lined up.

The two works with clarinet are among my favorites. The Gershwin is an adaptation of his solo composition for piano by the same name. While the Gershwin is charming, the sonata was the highlight of the program for me and the work that I invested the most time in. The Brahms sonatas are staples of the repertoire for both clarinet and piano and should not be missed by any collaborative artist. While the sonata has many opportunities for virtuosic display, the greatest challenge lies in matters of ensemble. Once again, attention to rhythmic precision is essential. This week, my partner and I struggled through some differences of interpretation as well. The basic issue was a question of how much rubato to employ in Brahms' composition. Obviously rubato will be present because of the period in which the piece was composed. Several times, each of us individually wanted to take liberties at the end of phrases that caused technical and/or musical issues for the other. Upon closer examination of the score, we realized that these points of difficulty were often not the actual end of the phrase, but rather a point of passing the theme to our musical partner. Once we carefully looked at the score (together and individually), it became clear that Brahms had often written his rubato into the score; we simply had to judiciously interpret what was clearly expressed on the page. It was a pleasure to work with an instrumentalist who was so passionate about the music and recognized that he was only one member of a three-person team in the music making process--comprised of the two performers and the composer. I look forward to future collaborations with this generous and intellectually stimulating musician.

The weakest aspect of the entire performance for me was the inclusion of the trios. I understand the logic behind presenting works for the three of us to perform together; they should have served as a unifying point of the concert. Personally, I felt as though they were poor selections that suffered additionally from our lack of rehearsal time as an ensemble. I realize that limited rehearsal time is often the norm for chamber ensembles and that we were dealing with schedules that could not be altered. Despite our situations (and excuses), the reality of the situation is that our limited rehearsals (roughly 1.5 hours on the day of the recital) resulted in unfamiliarity with the score, which further led to early entrances and sections that must be simply acknowledged as "poorly played."

While the Oblios was charming, it was clear that the keyboard part was written for a harpsichord or other early instrument which did not translate well to the modern piano. (No, I'm not a elitist who demands that compositions be played only on the historical instruments for which they were intended. I just think we have a responsibility as musicians to make sure that the compositions we perform translate effectively to our modern instruments.) The Salamon, on the other hand, was a work that I could have gone a lifetime without hearing. According to one of my collaborators, the trio has received wonderful reviews. I must admit that I have not searched out any of these statements online. Based upon my experience with the work, I found it to be a driveling piece of fluff that never actually went anywhere of interest musically. (Sorry for such a harsh review, but that's what I am known for--I am blunt to a fault.) Perhaps my poor response to Salamon's work is due to an uninformed performance on the ensemble's part. I don't think that is entirely the case, but I will at least concede the possibility respectfully to Salamon's status as a composer. Rather, I attribute much of the work's inadequacies to the fact that it is an early piece by the 16-year-old composer. The nocturne consisted of redundant harmonic progressions under an uninteresting melodic line. The repetitiveness of the trio continues into the closing variation set; supposedly written in the style of Bartok, I heard few similarities between the works of the 20th century master and Mr. Salamon.

With so many negative comments, it seems that I was unhappy with the performance. Nothing is further from the truth. In reality, the issues that I have raised in this blog are simply a reflection of my personal taste and address issues that comprised less than 5% of the total performance. The remaining 95% of the concert was of the highest quality and something about which I continue to be extremely proud. As a musician who is constantly pursuing new levels of excellence in my performances, however, I must thoroughly assess each public appearance in order to learn more about myself as a pianist so I can successfully chart my path on my continuing journey as a professional musician.