Pianist Aron Kallay offered a well-rounded program of innovative, politically charged music, including three world premieres, to open the Piano Spheres 2016-17 season. This, the 23rd season, is dedicated to Piano Spheres founder, Leonard Stein–born 100 years ago December–whose memory will inform each concert even more than usual.
“I did not know Leonard Stein personally,” stated Kallay in a preconcert talk, “but his impact on new music is clear, and makes its way into this program.”
Stein conceived of Piano Spheres, with a mission statement to champion “broader spheres of piano repertoire.” He performed an annual recital in the series, alternating with the four other pianists he selected.
Following his demise in 2004, Stein was never replaced. His spot in the series was left open for a guest artist, of which Kallay was this season’s choice.
Kallay programmed an exciting assortment of new works with an eye to Stein’s preferred repertoire, as well as the upcoming Presidential election and its implications for social justice. True to himself, Kallay–a director of People Inside Electronics and Microfest–performed several pieces involving electronics, though Stein generally played acoustic piano alone.
The REDCAT stage, decorated with political signs, came to life with the first notes of Monroe Golden‘s microtonal composition for retuned and remapped digital piano, I’m Worried Now, after the perennial blues standard “Worried Man Blues,” on a text about penal servitude.
Golden’s piece, a microtonal reinterpretation of twelve-bar blues, set the tone for the Kallay’s program, entitled “I’m worried now…but I won’t be worried long.” Most of the works explored troubling topics in recent history, and pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election, although ended on an optimistic note.
Microtonal music, with its expanded pitch vocabulary, enjoys heightened capacity for emotional expression. Monroe Golden relied on the technique of extended just intonation, retuning the digital keyboard to the pitches of the overtone series out to the 96th partial, to express the atrocities of penal servitude in the 20th century South most directly.
“‘Worried Man Blues’ is a piece I’ve known all my life,” stated Golden in a post concert interview. “The practice discussed in the text primarily affected the poor….I wanted to use microtonality to express the pain the compelled prisoners must have felt.”
Beyond the arresting, microtonal twang, which reinforced the blues song’s original message, viewers were treated to a surreal cognitive dissonance as far right keys sounded low in pitch and far left keys sounded high, defying expectations of any keyboardists present.
In a nod to Leonard Stein, Kallay offered a crystal clear rendition of Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (“Musical Sketchbook for Annalibera”), a suite of eleven miniature movements for piano solo dedicated to the composer’s daughter (the work’s namesake), on the occasion of her 8th birthday.
Beyond the scope of most children’s abilities, the work is more about childhood, in its whimsical playfulness, than for children per se.
“This is one of my favorite pieces for piano solo of the twentieth century, and I know Leonard Stein admired it and performed it,” stated Kallay.
A major twelve tone composition, Quaderno, would be known to Stein, who was Schoenberg’s assistant and graded assignments by Schoenberg’s pupils at UCLA. The brand of twelve-tonality utilized by Dallapiccola was closer to Berg’s than Schoenberg’s however, integrating tonal references, such as thirds and sevenths, for a gentle lyricism throughout.
The work also earned a place on the program due to Dallapiccola’s staunch support of the anti-fascist movement in mid-twentieth century Europe, which Kallay deemed apt in view of the imminent shift in Executive leadership and the risks entailed.
“I hope you like wrestling…,” signaled Kallay wryly, as a screen lit up and attendees sat up, evidently striving to process what was in store.
Kallay co-funded the next work, a world premiere Piano Spheres commission by composer Ian Dicke—wrestling aficionado, political activist, and accomplished music technologist—a volatile combination, ideally suited to Piano Spheres and the REDCAT stage.
Dicke’s Counterpundit features a montage of classic wrestle-mania footage (names like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter), looped into additive phrases, somewhat like a Stravinsky ballet. Dicke created a computer application combining live electronic processing of piano input with the video media. Kallay, opening the work as a soloist, eventually shifted roles into chamber musician, integrating piano music with the oddly hypnotic footage and layers of electronic sound in this Gesamtkunstwerk.
Heavily camp-laden Counterpundit compares the buffoonery of wrestle-maniacs to the political media pundits that influence perception in critical times such as these.
“I would have written something about this even if Aron hadn’t asked me to, as I consider myself a politically engaged composer.”
Traditional musical language, from Satie to Prokofieff (the latter quoted at one point), works with Dicke’s own harmonic concept as a convincing partner to the footage. The rhythmic play between instrumental forces attained to virtuoso levels, Kallay wizardly synchronizing with the media at several turns.
If Kallay is any example, it is clear that today’s pianist must go beyond piano playing. Kallay creates themed concerts, discovers existing repertoire to support a thesis, finds composers to commission, and constructs a verbal narrative to contextualize the program for attendees.
In the course of such research, he discovered Karen Walwyn, pianist and composer from Washington D.C., who provided the next work—another world premiere—“June 17th,” a movement from her suite Mother Emanuel: Charleston 2015, after the shooting in Charleston on that day.
“As much as I love this piece, I struggled with whether to program it because of its extraordinary gravity,” noted Kallay, “but thought it was important and should be heard.”
The work opens with a simple statement of classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” which breaks off abruptly, interrupted by terse, tense figuration. The hymn is reharmonized in surprising ways, fleshed with angry virtuoso writing until breaking off once more in a sharp, unanswered conclusion.
“Impromptu is a cry expressing the tortures of the soul that plague contemporary human beings,” writes Daoust, and indeed the musique concrète effects of the recorded media—sirens, traffic, and other elements of the urban soundscape—infuse the piece with a sense of angst, supporting the theme of social upheaval.
The Impromptu is a genre associate with the Romantic era, when friends would gather to generate their own music, largely by improvising. Daoust offered a modern, fully worked out Impromptu, every nuance preformulated and accounted for, but still expressing humanity’s key questions.
“I think people are as tortured by existential questions as they were during the Romantic period,” notes Daoust.
Preserving a link to the Romantic Impromptu tradition, Daoust quotes the haunting B section melody of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu, (used also by Crumb in his piano work Makrokosmos).
Lee, playing the Steinway model D, brought a melting lyricism to the singing melodies, while angular lines emerged from out of the recording and duo ensemble.
In a strongly topical inclusion to the program, Laura Karpman’s Shrill, a work of “disposable music,” as Kallay introduced it, is overtly centered on the 2016 presidential election. Whether the work will endure as a humorous and surprisingly musical snapshot of current events, or fade away as quickly as the losing candidate, only time will tell.
Shrill, commissioned by Kallay and Piano Spheres, is Karpman’s answer to a critique of Hillary Clinton. Detractors call her voice shrill, “but it is Donald Trump who is truly shrill,” so notes Karpman.
The work is scored for “solo piano and Trump,” which reads like a typo at first glance. Cast in the perennial melodrama genre—spoken word accompanied by music—the verbal content is complimented by music reinforcements, yet unfolds with clarity.
Soundbites of Trump’s especially polarizing statements are presented in catchy rhythms, looped for effect, both musical and political. Kallay served once again as accompanist to the media, interspersing Trump’s charged remarks with a sardonic, biting musical language reminiscent of Satie’s funniest moments. Stereophonic effects abound, imparting a sophistication that lifts the work well beyond its prosaic central topic.
Fortuitously, Trump’s voice and locution is highly musical, so it turns out. Who knew he sang melodies such as descending broken minor triads, and perfect fifths while on the campaign trail. He may have missed a calling as vocalist.
Kallay concluded by stating, “I am actually not sure I won’t be worried long….”
The future remains uncertain, but the Jewish hymn “Shalom Chaverim,” arranged into a set of eight variations for piano solo by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, rounded out the program on a friendly, hopeful note.
Hailstork’s reinterpretation of the traditional Jewish theme, sung by children on holidays throughout the Jewish calendar, utilized modern harmonies, including quartalism and expanded tonality, and warm textures that express the original text implicitly:
Till we meet again