A Little Night Music

Last Thursday, Roulette once again hosted another Interpretations concert, the penultimate one of the season, this one a recital by pianist Teresa McCollough, accurately subtitled “Playing, Plucking, Pounding: New Music for Piano & Percussion.” Redundant, perhaps, considering that the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, yet it gives a great idea of what I heard.

This was an evening dedicated to the sounds that the piano can produce, especially the inherent resonant sonorities which can be so satisfying to produce and hear, and the concert was a deeply pleasurable and refreshing one. McCollough chose a program that was contemporary and broad in range and which featured some of the best idiomatic piano writing of the past few decades, as well as works which balanced a straightforward expression of an experimental approach.

Most straightforward of all was Gabriela Lena Frank‘s two pianos, two percussion arrangement of her ballet El Dia de los Muertos. This is a narrative work set in episodes, and the music ably conveys both story and setting, the opening prelude evoking the kind of western landscape of the imagination familiar from Sergio Leone movies. The work takes great delight in the kind of forceful chordal playing and rhythmic precision that was first expressed in Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It resonates joyfully. This is a recent work by a young composer, another is Noise + Mobile by Sam Pluta, a former student of McCollough’s. Pluta’s piece is for piano with electronic accompaniment, a kind of dialogue between a up-to-the-minute glitchy sound with skittering beats, and an energetic piano part that changes character halfway through the piece into something more introspective, finally drifting off into quiet. The electronics are less interesting than the piano part, which is involving and well-written, and the two don’t seem to have very much to do with each other. Perhaps running the piano through the loudspeakers would integrate the two better, but as it is the work is only a half-success.

Preceding these works in the recital’s second-half was Greed Machine, a work from Alvin Singleton that McCollough has recorded. It’s a duet for piano and vibraphone and reflects Singleton’s personal style, which is elusive, mysterious, hermetic and deeply fascinating. The piece begins with the dramatic gesture of fortissimo chords, but there is space aplenty to appreciate the ringing decay of the sound. In fact, space is a feature of the structure, which generally alternates between a musical statement and the silence in which we may contemplate it. The statements themselves are made with the slightest means; a chord, a short line of notes. Things start and seem to lose their way and, confounded, bring themselves to a halt. This is by design and the results involving, like reading Beckett and realizing there is a way to use language that is both unfamiliar in intent and yet clear in method.

The first half was a real tour-de-force in pianism, with McCollough performing John Adams‘ seminal China Gates, George Crumb‘s A Little Suite for Christmas AD 1979, and then joined by Michael Boyd for Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. China Gates is one of Adams “juvenile” pieces, like Shaker Loops and even Grand Pianola Music; works that mark his beginnings as a major composer and also ones that may be played well by student musicians. It’s a beautiful and enduring piece, with the shimmering, limpid surface familiar to pulse-pattern Minimalism but also the sense of resonant sound that has been a feature of his work. What also sets it apart is the movement of inner voices, a contrapuntal quality procedure that gives the work a quasi-Medieval flavor. The later work is just as full of resonant sound, but is far more extroverted, complex and challenging to play. The two pianos mix complex cross-rhythms in a rollicking, jazzy dialogue that has an underlying delicacy of both line and mood. There was some roughness in coordination between the two pianists, but they found the footing quickly and played with great verve and command. Along with his considerable craft, Adams has an important ability to convey both extroversion and introversion simultaneously. Hallelujah Junction gives us something that feels like de Chirico’s The Melancholy of Departure, the simultaneous excitement, sadness, apprehension and determination that comes with setting off on some new journey.

Crumb’s piece is a beautiful meditation and a lesson on just what kind of sound can be produced from the piano, in the great experimental tradition that Henry Cowell began. Like Cowell, Crumb is presenting clear ideas in an unfamiliar way. This series of miniatures explores the shimmering overtones that sustained chords can produce, and demonstrates the variety of timbres that can be achieved by damping strings with the hand, plucking and stroking others. It’s is technically accomplished but not a technical work, rather it is exceedingly expressive in the sense that this language of timbres and overtones is the type of delicate, fleeting and nuanced language the can express contemplation of the Giotto frescoes in the Cappella di Scorvegni in Padova. This was perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening; McCollough played the keyboard music of all the pieces with great command, dedication and assured, expressive pianistic skill. The quality she brought to the Little Suite was great taste, a superb ear. The piano string is a cold, tightly wound piece of metal, and any person can pluck it or strike it, unlike the piano keys, with equal sonic results. McCollough is an excellent musician, and with that, she brings the extra measure, which is plucking or striking that string at the moment when it most matters. And the moment when it most matters is that exact moment that her musicianship, thinking and taste has brought the music, and us, to meet.