Pianist Kent Lyman offered an evening of often-brilliant piano music before a large audience in Meredith's Carswell Recital Hall on November 30. The fare was hardly customary, but the artist had gone to the trouble to master the material, nonetheless, and he played the entire program from memory. A music-lover whose opinions we value groused that Lyman again offered off-beat material, but we submit that there is no question about his technical prowess or his artistic sensibilities, and quite frankly we'd much rather hear unusual stuff, handsomely realized, than yet another reading of a mainstream sonata or what-have-you that everybody and his (or her) brother has already played to death. Another attendee observed that Lyman is doing some remarkable things at Meredith, not least of which is that he's choosing music that fits the college's regular Carswell piano to a T; in that space, the instrument sounds unusually bright and can project tremendous clarity, especially in its upper register.
The program was a Pan-American affair, given without an intermission, that lasted precisely one hour. Intermission-less concerts that aren't too long have their points. Some students and even critics who from time to time watch the clock tend to be pleased when "classes" are dismissed early; and particularly since Lyman's was an all-20th-century program, omitting the break kept everyone on hand till the end of the show. It's a safe bet that, in this case, few if any people were disappointed.
The music was attractive and immediately accessible. Ginastera's Tres Piezas, explained in some informative but uncredited program notes that were clearly by Lyman, are rooted in folk music and reflect the nationalism the composer espoused in the 1940s. That each of the three pieces depicts a different type of woman provided one more example of Lyman's skill as a program maker, for Meredith's "Year of Music" offerings celebrate women more often than not. Lyman realized the three short numbers with keen insight, projecting a great deal of character in each. They seemed strangely Debussyian in terms of mood and color but the dynamics were wide-ranging. Indeed, the second section, "Norteña," was in places so quiet that the piano came close to being obscured by ambient noise in the hall itself.
Logan Skelton's unpublished "Civil War Variations" are based on "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." He's not the first composer who has taken up this tune but if memory serves (and it doesn't, always) an overture by Roy Harris manages to exhaust the theme in less time. Under normal circumstances, we suspect that Skelton's 15-minute run of the tune through 25 diverse variations might have seemed a bit much, but Lyman's playing was constantly fresh and, given the national mood at the moment, the music seemed quite wonderful.
So, too, was the stirring performance of Barber's "Excursions," the four parts of which often hint at other tunes and other music--a train-like opener that suggests Villa Lobos' famous Capira piece; blues, in the second number; the old Western song "Streets of Laredo" in the third; and, in the finale, a barn dance that gives Copland a run for his money. Like Ginastera's Piezas, "Excursions" contains undercurrents that at times give the almost-quotations dark qualities. (The Barber has been heard in the Triangle several times in recent years and Carrboro's Greg McCallum has recorded it.) That Lyman clearly loves this music was apparent throughout; he tends to put all his emotions into what he plays, but once or twice in the Barber, watching his own hands in their intricate overlappings, a twinge of a smile was apparent, even from the back of the hall!
The grand finale was superficially light, too, but there's plenty of serious piano writing in William Albright's "Dream Rags" - despite the fact that an account of the composer's reaction to a performance by Logan Skelton, included in the notes, makes one wonder how serious Albright really was. The first number, "Sleepwalker's Shuffle," may have been lifted in part from "Walk Right In"--the line is "Baby, let you hair hang down," which thus fits Meredith's programming conceit perhaps better than anyone may have intended. Overall, "Shuffle" is as strange, in its way, as Ginastera's impressionism. The second part, "The Nightmare Fantasy Rag (A Night on Rag Mountain)," is a riotous tour de force with just the right kind of finale--loud and fast--to send folks away atwitter. Lyman milked these for all they are worth and then some and then - perhaps wisely - opted to let that be that.