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Recital Review Print

Four Hands Festival at Duke

February 12, 2005 - Durham, NC:

On the evening of February 11, the Choral Society of Durham and the NCS performed in Duke Chapel, Joshua Bell gave a sold-out recital in Page Auditorium, and there were other events elsewhere in the Triangle, so it's not surprising that the first of two programs of music for piano four hands and for two pianos – and one featuring Duke-based teachers and their students, too – drew a smallish crowd to Baldwin Auditorium. The CSD's program – directed by Rodney Wynkoop – was repeated the next day and on 2/13 in Raleigh as well, and Bell repeated his program in Winston-Salem (where it wasn't sold out) on the 12th – but there was no run-out for the pianists, and there was no repeat elsewhere of the second concert of the four-hands pair, heard February 12 – although truth to tell at least one part of it had been given earlier, during Meredith's recent Sand-Chopin festival. No matter. Those who were there know how marvelous the keyboard events were, and how richly varied was the programming. Those who weren't may hope that the microphones in Baldwin captured enough releasable material for the performances to become available in the underground, at least.

Teachers – especially, I think, music teachers – enjoy special relationships with their students, and vice-versa. It's usually a one-on-one thing, for openers. And music, as many readers of this column will surely know, can shape whole lifetimes. Thinking back on the major teachers in my own life, I recall a master of Shakespeare who was a friend of Robert Frost and whose closeness to music was evident in every word and phrase he uttered, a philosopher who introduced me to Ives, a composer who taught me how to listen to new music – and why it mattered, and my applied music teachers... (I recently spent some time with one of the latter after nearly 40 years, and during that visit I was able to tell him how much influence he has had on me, on an ongoing basis, since those brief lessons at UNC so long ago....)

So this concert was special in many special ways. The teachers – David Heid, Randall Love (on his own, and filling in for the indisposed Jane Hawkins), and Pei-fen Liu are all outstanding players and outstanding pedagogues, able to guide their young (and some not-so-young) charges through the vast realms of life experiences embraced by and contained within music and projected to listeners, too, when it is successfully brought to life using those black squiggles on the printed page as guides.

The concert opened with a movement from a Clementi sonata for two pianos, played by Mark Marex and David Heid. If Andrew Willis' recent concert in Winston-Salem appealed in part because of his interpretation of a Clementi sonata, this excerpt was perhaps even more revealing, since it demonstrated a scope of music-making this writer has rarely sensed in this composer's scores – and particularly in works most likely meant for domestic consumption. Half of Schumann's Twelve Four-Hand Pieces for Small and Big Children (the German title is "...für kleine und grosse Kinder"), Op. 85, were revelatory in their own ways, too. Some seemed a bit machine-like, but others – the lyrical ones – were every bit as compelling as Schumann's finest and most acclaimed Lieder. These pieces were beautifully played by Stephanie Westen (who studies with Jane Hawkins) and Randall Love. And Schubert's Allegro in A, a duet known as "Lebensstürme," a late work bearing catalog number D.947, was a delight from start to finish, even though it went on and on and on.... What made it work was the informed playing of Priscilla Eunkyung Baek and Heid, who together managed to project just enough differences in the many repeats....

The second half seemed, to this listener, somewhat less successful, but chances are that's because of the way the pieces were presented. There were three important works – Satie's "Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire" (listed in the program as "Three Pieces in Pear Form," which is close enough, but isn't the French more fun to say – and besides, where's the pear?), Debussy's Petite Suite, and two movements from Rachmaninov's Suite No. 2 for two pianos. These are great and famous scores, much loved even if almost never heard "live" anymore. But they were done by groups of students – four of Liu's played the Satie in relays, as it were; two more each played half of the Debussy with her; and the Rachmaninov movements were done by Love and two of his students. Alas, the changes invited applause, so the music didn't come across as effectively as it might have under other circumstances. There were some little glitches here and there, surely due to the players' varying levels of accomplishment – they weren't all seniors, by any means. But on the other hand, this was a very special and rare treat for folks who admire the piano and its rich literature, and it was concurrently a good opportunity to sample the work of a flock of folks – 14, when the evening was done, with the teachers and the students coming across to the audience as very much equal partners in the undertaking. In the second half, the students, in order of appearance, were Christienna Fryar, Laura beach, Lucy He, & David Hall (in the Satie), Steven Lin and Willie Hsieh (Debussy), and Will Horn and Robert Tipton (Rachmaninov).

It was time very well spent, even given the several competing events elsewhere.


And there was more the following night, in the same venue, when "professional" duos held not only the stage but also the imaginations and the rapt attention of a small crowd for the second and concluding part of Duke's Festival of Four Hands, coordinated by David Heid. Eight artists, in four groups, took part, and the bottom line included enhanced awareness of the good health of piano playing and teaching in our state.

A new duo, just two weeks old, got things underway as Deborah Hollis joined former Illinois U. classmate Dewitt Tipton for Mozart's Sonata, K.448, for two pianos. The side of the instrument on the right needed some lampblack or liquid shoe polish (or at least a touchup with black magic marker), but the sound these artists evoked was marvelous, and they brought the venerable work to glowing life. This is a remarkable achievement since Hollis' usual partner is David Heid, and this was her debut with Tipton, who is based in Asheville.

Meredith professors Jim Fogle and Kent Lyman, colleagues since the latter's arrival at the Raleigh college, had never performed together till they took up Chopin's Rondo, that master's sole work for two pianos, which they offered during a recent Sand-Chopin festival in the capital, although this writer missed that performance. It was good to hear the piece, rarely played, in Baldwin, and they delivered it handsomely and with great flair.

Elizabeth and Jonathan Masonpierre have been working at UNC-Pembroke for a quarter of a century, so it was a treat to hear them in the Triangle, and our delight was heightened because they played a work by Bernard Heiden (1910-2000), whom we had to go home and look up. His Sonata for Piano Four Hand (1946) suggested someone else – was it Stravinsky? No, the influence was from Hindemith, with whom he studied in Berlin, just before he moved to the US. The Sonata begins with an Allegro moderato that seemed more moderato than allegro, a dark and somewhat murky opener that is followed by a finger-busting Ostinato that brought out the instrument's percussive qualities and a winning set of variations that are all over the place in terms of ranges, dynamics, and moods.

The Grand Duo (to borrow a phrase) of Barbara Rowan and Francis Whang brought the program to a dazzling close with music by living Americans – William Bolcom's three-part Recuerdos, which evokes sultry nights, too much rum, and Cuban cigars (the smoking of which has now been banned in public places on the island!). The music is appealing but spiky, and it's surely a lot more difficult than it sounded as played by these savvy and seasoned artists, who as the Janus Duo have for more than a decade enriched the lives of music lovers in the Triangle. The grand finale was the world premiere of a short (137 seconds, more or less) score by Duke's Stephen Jaffe, composed to mark the recent retirement of Rowan and Whang from UNC. There's more than piano-playing in this action-packed and snazzy piece – finger snapping, clapping, and some facial expressions (which may or may not be notated!) enlivened the music, which was played with the composer in attendance and was warmly received by all. An encore would have been welcome, since it's so short, but chances are it will turn up on future Janus Duo concerts here and there.

Number-crunchers who are keeping track will realize that 22 people took part in this gala pair of events. But for the dearth of notes or comments on the music, little of which was classical-top-40 fare, the festival was a class act through and through. Congratulations and thanks to all!