Wednesday September 21st, 2016 - Dan K Kurland invited me to this concert of French music - from the familiar to the relatively obscure - for two pianos at Juilliard's Paul Hall. The program looked very inviting, and since dance themes prevailed throughout the hour-long presentation, it was especially agreeable to have choreographer Claudia Schreier sitting next to me.
We arrived just moments before the house lights dimmed; Paul Hall was nearly full, and we found seats in the front row, in the aisle. The balance of sound may have been slightly off, but it was a very interesting perspective visually.
~ POULENC L’embarquement pour Cynthère
Pianists: Dan K Kurland and Jonathan Feldman
Opening with this 1951 Poulenc gem - music that is so quintessentially French - the tone for the entire evening was set. Described as a Valse-Musette, this piece delights from its vivacious start to its ironic finish. Though Dan Kurland was not originally schedule to play tonight, he did...and wore red socks into the bargain, a subtle nod to a beloved French pianist. Joining Dan was Jonathan Feldman, chairman of Juilliard's Collaborative Piano Department, making for a brilliant performance.
~ DEBUSSY Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune
Pianists: Michał Biel and Brian Zeger
Shifting moods, we are plunged into the erotic mystery of Claude Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune in a splendid performance by Michal Biel and Brian Zeger. The composer completed his symphonic poem Afternoon of a Faun in 1894, and published a version for two pianos the following year. In a rapture-inducing performance of perfumed sonorities, the two pianists beautifully summoned up the music's alternating currents of delicacy and turbulent passion. I so enjoyed seeing Brian Zeger again, here in the hall where I first heard him play many moons ago.
~ FRANÇAIX Huit Dances Exotiques
Pianists: Cherie Roe and Arthur Williford
Dating from 1957, these eight miniatures represent the "newest" music on the program. Pianists Cherie Roe and Arthur Williford jumped right into the music hall swing-and-sway of the opening Pambiche. Sprightly syncopation and etched-in miniature glissandi delighted us in Baiao, and more syncopation followed in Nube gris; both here and in the lively Merengue that follows, sudden endings took us by surprise. The rolling rhythm of the Mambo was further enhanced by a mid-song change of key. Both the urbane, casually shrugging Samba and the bouncy swirl of the Malambeano caught us off-guard by ending in mid air. The final Rock 'n' Roll, wryly jazzy, would have caused my old friend Franky to exclaim, "This is so jive!" The two pianists seemed to be having a blast with this music.
~ CHAMINADE Duo Symphonique
Pianists: Dror Baitel and Nathan Raskin
Cécile Chaminade, the sole female composer to be included on this evening's program, wrote her Duo Symphonique in 1905. Of all the music heard this evening, this was the most traditionally "classical" in feeling. It opens operatically, runs on to swirls of notes and later to fanfare-like motifs. The highest and lowest registers of the piano are explored, the vast range adding to the truly symphonic quality of the piece: "...lyrical grandeur..." was one of my descriptive scrawls. A more delicate theme heralds a song-like interlude, followed by a build-up and an a grandiose finale. I loved every minute of it, and was very impressed by the expert playing of Dror Baitel and Nathan Raskin.
~ SAINT-SAËNS Danse Macabre
Pianists: Jinhee Park and Ho Jae Lee
Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre is a musical setting of a poem by the French poet Henri Cazalis, based on the allegory of the 'dance of death'. Pianists Ho Jae Lee and Jinhee Park maintained communication across the pianos, which in their sleek blackness took on a coffin-like aspect. The music rises from the depths to jangling heights, descending passages seem to point to the grave (or to hell), and at one point the very lowest notes of the keyboard resound. Becoming wildly dramatic, the music speeds up before turning more pensive and ending in sudden death. The audience took special delight in this piece, and in the two players.
~ DEBUSSY Petite Suite
Pianists: Katelan Terrell and Michał Biel
Debussy’s Petite Suite was published in its original four-hands version in 1889; transcriptions for solo piano and for violin and piano followed in 1906. The work found great popularity in a 1907 adaptation for chamber orchestra by Henri Büsser. Tonight the four-hands version was played by Katelan Terrell and Michal Biel, seated together at a single keyboard. Commencing in dreamy softness, the suite continues with evocations of Spring, very slight tinges of gypsy allure, contrasts of rhythm and lull, and bursts of joyous rippling in the higher range which maintain brightness. The final movement seems very 'Parisian', and, after an interlude, we are carried back to the boulevards by our two sophisticated pianists.
~ RAVEL La Valse
Pianists: Sora Jung and Adam Rothenberg
Best known (especially to Balanchine admirers) in its orchestral version, Ravel's La Valse was transcribed by the composer twice, once for solo piano and again for two pianos. The first performance of the piano duo version was given at the home of Misia Sert, with Ravel himself one of the pianists. Misia, one of my favorite characters in the history of music and dance, was the work's dedicatee. Among those present at Misia's salon for the premiere performance were Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, and Léonide Massine: how I wish I could have been there!
The mystery of the opening of La Valse loomed up from the depths as pianists Sora Jung and Adam Rothenberg launched their intense and remarkable performance. At last the waltz struggles to the surface, and the two pianists delight in flinging myriad colours onto the sonic canvas. Thunderous intrusions alternate with madly ironic swirls of dance. This is music on the verge of madness.
Throughout the Ravel, images of two beloved dancers - Janie Taylor and farewell performance in 2014.- overtook my imagination: they danced this Balanchine masterwork at their New York City Ballet
Tonight, as all the pianists appeared for a bow on the stage of Paul Hall at the end of the concert, an exuberant standing ovation greeted them. A really wonderful evening!