Elon University's renovated Whitley Auditorium had a good turnout of alumni and students for an October 30 recital by the dynamic pianist Leon Bates. This was the first formal concert using a marvelous, newly restored Steinway piano that dates from the 1920s. The sound was full and vibrant throughout its range. Some tapestries or rugs might help tame some reverberation problems above forte.
Bates has played a number of Triangle concerts that conflicted with other series. I finally caught him when he did MacDowell's First Piano Concerto with the N.C. Symphony a few seasons ago. His well-publicized program of working out--he's a weightlifter--pays off with the extraordinary quality and power of his playing at forte and above. Among his many distinguished awards is the most recent, the Pennsylvania Artist of the Year, presented earlier this month. His diverse program of Mozart, Schumann, Takemitsu and Barber gave maximum exposure to his mastery of significant music from the classical, romantic, avant-garde and more mainstream modern styles.
Bates' clean and precise articulation easily survived the scrutiny of the bright hall and Mozart's transparent writing in the astonishing early Sonata in A Minor, K.310. It is tempting to agree with the scholar Einstein who assumed that it was written under the weight of Mozart's grief at his mother's death in Paris. Phrasing, contrasts and expressive use of dynamics were ideal. Not a whiff of the old "porcelain " view was present. Despite a blessedly fast train on the nearby tracks, the slow movement unfolded naturally, its singing line revealed in relaxed, natural tempo. Trills were beautifully executed and there was a yearning quality in the treble line. The presto last movement had comparable virtues.
I should have refreshed my ear for the next work, Robert Schumann's sprawling Fantasie in C, Op. 17. It gave full reign to Bates's ability to project complex emotions with a wide palate of piano color and dynamics. Nominally in three movements, many in the audience mistook the end of the second movement for the finale. It seemed more like five parts to me. Schumann wrote this during the period when he and Clara Wieck were forbidden to communicate. Many references to Clara take the form of a theme akin to the main theme of the sixth song of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte . This was a welcome and rare chance to hear a major work by Schumann, a composer neglected in the Triangle.
I braced myself for the two Rain Tree Sketches (1982 & 1992) by Toru Takemitsu, a composer on the cutting edge of the avant-garde when I became interested in classical music. Adverse first impressions of an early LP kept me away from contemporary music for decades. The sound was that of a vaguely impressionist tapestry of eerie bell like sounds that occasionally plunged into the bass range. Some of it reminded me of Olivier Messiaen.
The last three pieces played were in effect a mini-Samuel Barber festival, consisting of half of his solo works for piano. Ballade (1977) is "based on the metamorphosis of a single motive: a chromatically descending four-note pattern whose repetitions become increasingly urgent." The composer took nearly eight months to finish the short piece, commissioned for the Cliburn Competition. Barber's earlier Nocturne (1959) was written as an homage to John Field but Barber specialist John Browning thinks it is probably a tribute to Chopin. The way Bates played the nocturne theme, with its feathery, chromatic filigree of embellishments and trills, made that view viable. Only a momentary memory lapse (or a lapse in execution) near the end of the great Sonata (1950) marred Bates' Herculean efforts on its behalf. One of his most influential works, it was commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers in honor of the 25th anniversary of the League of Composers and premiered--and championed--by Vladimir Howowitz. The second movement's evanescence was fully brought out. The six dyads (vertical statements of twelve tones) were painless compared to their treatment by some acolytes of Schoenberg's methods. (Barber never turned his back on tonality--much to many music lovers' relief.) The last movement, a great fugue written at Howowitz's suggestion, was fascinating. Traditional fugal devices were combined with syncopated rhythms and "blue-note" harmonies associated with American jazz. As an encore, Bates treated the audience to an extended, lushly Romantic piece by Rachmaninoff.
At intermission, Bates fine Naxos CD of piano works by Gershwin and Chick Corea was on sale. The only problem was that the list price for Naxos CDs is about $6.99 and these were being sold for $15!