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The new piano's been in service for a year or more, but the formal dedication waited till the first Sunday in June, when the instrument figured in all the music in the morning worship services and when, at 3:00 p.m., in the sanctuary of Highland United Methodist Church, pianist and NC native Greg McCallum offered a generous, demanding, and consistently engaging program of wide-ranging works designed to show off the Schimmel grand's impressive capabilities. The piano is lovely to look at and a delight to hear. Its sound is rich and full across its full dynamic spectrum, the instrument responds readily to varied demands, and there didn't seem to be anything it couldn't do as McCallum put it through its paces.
First up was Grieg's Suite "from Holberg's Time." It's better known as the Holberg Suite - and far better known, too, in its string-orchestra incarnation. The original piano version is much, much better for savoring the music's felicities - this is "old" music in quasi-modern dress, so it resembles baroque keyboard music, and McCallum brought out those qualities altogether admirably. This was probably the highlight of a very fine program, just because it was such a treat to "rediscover" this music, as if hearing it for the first time.*
Debussy's Estampes came next. McCallum has been keen on French music for a long time, and we've previously enjoyed the magic he works in these varied pieces - it was a treat to revisit them in his skilled and insightful interpretations.
During the break, a free-will offering was taken for the Methodist Home for Children.
Gershwin's Three Preludes are among our American master's most appealing works, so it's surprising we don’t hear them more often. McCallum crawled inside the composer's soul in his delivery of these short pieces - they were brief enough to fit onto two sides of a 12" 78 when the composer himself recorded them.
McCallum's own Hymn Quilt is an astonishing piece of pot-boiled Americana that offers a sometimes amusing collection of religious tunes from a wide swatch of domestic sources ranging from the Sacred Harp tradition to Pentecostalists to Lutherans and beyond, all done up with Ivesian wizardry and flair. It's a great piece for a piano dedication in a not-too-straight-laced church, and it went over with tremendous success. (It reminded me of the late Joe Bouchard, one of Raleigh's great bass soloists, who was raised a Baptist but who served Temple Beth Or as a cantor and who never missed a chance to sing at Sacred Heart Cathedral - he said he was covering all the theological bases to shore up his chances in the hereafter!)
On the other hand, one might question the inclusion of Liszt's "Mephisto" Waltz (No. 1) in this setting. To give the Devil his due, the joke connected with this knuckle-buster is that no matter how fast an artist plays it, it's always too slow. Beating the odds, McCallum did it brilliantly - and then brought redemption at the end of the program with a splendidly serene performance of one of Liszt's sublime Consolations.
The artist will perform at Duke in the fall - check our calendar for details in due course.
*Holberg's famous play, Masquerade, is being presented by Triad Stage through June 26. For details, click here.