“Does music have to be virtuosic to engage us?”
This is the question with which Dr. Alan Huckleberry began his pre-recital lecture at the Piano Sunday concert at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. “No!” was his emphatic answer. Huckleberry is currently engaged in a project to video record over 7,000 pedagogical pieces on the Iowa Music Teachers Association repertoire list and post the performances to YouTube. As Huckleberry said, the small pieces are often just as well crafted and can be just as engaging as the virtuosic war-horses… if they are given a sensitive, thoughtful performance. Huckleberry’s project aims at giving students access to fine playing, marshalling beautiful demonstration as a powerful pedagogical tool.
On Huckleberry’s repertoire list on Sunday were selections from Japanese composer Yoshinao Nakada‘s Japanese Festival. The miniatures were very much like a 20th century version of Schumann’s Album for the Young–engaging, well-crafted pieces with distinct and memorable characters. The third piece in the set, “A Green Caterpillar and a Butterfly” was particularly evocative, with the sluggish, octave bass melody of the caterpillar contrasting with the major, high treble flights of the butterfly. Throughout, Nakada invokes harmonic idioms characteristic of the common-practice era, but bends the ear with unexpected resolutions. For example, the seventh piece “The Ballet by the Little Flower” begins with a long prolongation of the dominant sonority–so long, in fact, one wonders if V7 has substituted for tonic. Very Schumann. In another humorous nod to our tonal expectations, the “Etude Moderato” veers toward the whole-tone scale at the end, only to be reeled back in safely with an authentic cadence. Nakada’s pieces and Huckleberry’s playing are, simply put, a delight.
On the second half of the program, Dr. Réne Lecuona gave inspired performances of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 1 and the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, replete with all of the orchestrational changes of color and timbre that she reported were a part of her imaginative interpretation of the works. The most intriguing piece that she played, however, was the newly composed Imprimitivity by UIowa faculty composer Dr. Lawrence Fritts. Fritts is known for his work in the UIowa Electronic Music Studios, but this piano work was completely acoustic. It began in the upper reaches of the piano, with the hands playing in complex rhythmic relationships like 5:4 and 7:5. These tuplet relationships between the hands are a major technical and intellectual challenge for the pianist, but Lecuona handled them gracefully and accurately. Given the repetitive texture, the mind and ear begin to play tricks, separating the highest pitches from the lowest. Do we hear two streams (high and low), or three (high, middle, and low)? As the patterned hands fell into a flexible, shifting ostinato working gradually lower toward the middle of the keyboard, I began to experiment with my perception. (What happens if I shift my attention to the lower stream, or the higher?)
A few minutes into the piece, the texture thinned considerably, the meditative tuplets disappeared, and the two hands engaged in what sounded like a free improvisation–a conversation of gestural counterpoint. The quasi-minimalist texture returned to close the piece, with the hands following one another down into the bass (LH) and baritone (RH) ranges. The left hand seemed to fall off the keyboard near the end, running out of keys to play all of its tuplet pitches, and interjecting only intermittently as a result. The dramatic trajectory of the piece is available to the listener upon a first hearing (like this Ligeti piano etude), and is a feature that welcomes the listener and encourages interpretation. For me, the tuplet relationships between the hands were like two friends walking or breathing together and falling slightly out of phase. The global direction of the piece was almost never in doubt–you and your friend continue walking in the same direction–but the moment-to-moment relationship is always shifting and flexible.
Both performers engaged the audience through expert and beautiful playing, but we should not overlook the power of the spoken word. Both performers spoke to the audience multiple times, contextualizing their work, as well as the composers and pieces on the program. This type of dialogue and engagement with the audience is surely one of the best ways to draw audiences toward contemporary music and its delights.