In October 2003, we were wowed by pianist Steven Mayer's first concert on the Adams Foundation Piano Recital Series at Elon University, and more than a few piano fanciers were in the audience of Whitley Auditorium for his spectacular return on February 8. The concert program was divided between European or European-influenced music in the first half and an American-originals second half.
Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861) was an American composer of German-Bohemian birth. In prefatory remarks, Mayer said the composer (modestly) called himself "the Beethoven of Kentucky" and that his style clearly reflected the general classical style of Vienna. He began composing at the age of forty after several failed business ventures in America. According to New Grove II, he studied violin and piano in his youth but was essentially self-taught. Contemporaries considered him the first "professional" American composer, and he became a dominant figure in the mid-19th-century scene. His works were played and praised in Europe. From The Dawning of Music in Kentucky (1820), Mayer played "La Buona Mattina: Andante and Polacco." The music is pleasant, clearly in the generic Classical style. The slow opening seems to have rather predictable descending key progressions along with plenty of trills and arpeggios. The theme of the main portion is a catchy melody. As observed from the balcony, the piece seemed to call for some unusual left hand positions, frequently exploiting the thumb and pinkie finger alone. On the whole, the soubrette of "the Hummel or Benda of Kentucky" might be closer to the mark.
What a treat it was to have programming that extended the repertoire heard during Meredith College's recent celebration of Chopin! Mayer brought seemingly effortless virtuosity and consummate style to the traditional coupling of the "Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise," Op. 22. A better performance of the piece would be hard to imagine. The pianist prefaced it with the comment of an early 20th-century musicologist to the effect that it evoked the "Paris of white gloves."
Before playing Franz Liszt's transcription of the Overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser, Mayer quoted the virtuoso's note that "not every pianist would want to attempt it." What an understatement, and what a workout for both the musician and the instrument! I can recall few examples of such wide ranges of dynamics and exploitation of color. The degree to which Liszt was able to evoke the sound of the orchestra, whether in the stormy Venusberg music or the murmur of the approaching pilgrims, was amazing. At the reception, Mayer told me it is the hardest piece that he has learned. He is preparing another Naxos CD that will feature Liszt's transcriptions.
After intermission, the music of uniquely American originals was featured. The style of Harlem stride piano dominated the fast-paced "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness" by Thomas "Fats" Waller and in "Fat Francis" by Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton. The mellow and slow "Blueberry Rhyme" of James P. Johnson, with its trills, flourishes, and song-like melody, was a complete contrast. Instead of the scheduled "Souvenir of Puerto Rico" by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Mayer played "The Goucho." Some of the quieter passages were fleetingly reminiscent of Copland's Rodeo.
Highlights of Mayer's 2003 recital were his brilliant playing of transcriptions he had made of works by Art Tatum. More were on tap for this recital: "St. Louis Blues," Variations on Massenet's "Elegy," "Tatum Pole Boogie," and "Tiger Rag." These were more than just readings of the scores: they were vividly brought to life by Mayer's fiery playing. The performances had the air of improvisation. After his last concert, I rushed out and bought a CD of Tatum playing Tatum to which I have added Mayer's recent Naxos release. The pianist said another Tatum disc will soon be released.
Mayer was very original in his choice for an encore, offering "The Alcotts," from the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. His fingers conjured up colors worthy of Ravel and Debussy while his layering of overheard hymns and gospel songs and a quote from Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata were masterful. This was a standout on his 2003 recital, and this performance was just as astonishing. I encourage fans to acquire his recent Naxos release that features the Concord Sonata as well as shorter pieces that have been derived from it.