This week, Zipper Concert Hall at the Colburn School hosted the latest installment of the Piano Spheres series, a concert by pianist Mark Robson entitled “The Debussy Project.” Specifically, the program placed Debussy’s Douze Etudes against a set of compositions by living composers—each responding in their own way to a particular etude from Debussy’s set.
Robson’s command of the Debussy was stunning: watching his performance, one could get lost in the theater of fingers built into the work. But beneath the virtuosic flurries was a technical mastery that highlighted Debussy’s emphasis on texture, and amplified the orchestral spirit of his piano writing. The simplicity of concept that underpins each etude might have risked sounding like a progression of, well, studies, but in Robson’s hands they provided a window into how various musical materials were treated by Debussy to create a musical language rich with contrast, layers, and detail.
The twelve accompanying composer reactions constituted the second half of the recital, and the range of styles and approaches indicated the degree to which Debussy’s language continues to serve as musical inspiration, continues to provide a bridge between past and future. Some focused on his style: Kotcheff’s work evoked virtuosic and dramatic contrasts, and Ivanova’s explored the commenting, often brash, musical interruptions. Bansal and Kohn both tapped into Debussy’s proclivity for sheathing his musical ideas with layers of sparkling textures—a foregrounding of detail taken to the extreme by Gates, whose piece unfolded flurries and sheets of sound until a final, tender conclusion.
Others focused on exploding those details out of time completely, exploring harmony and texture carefully and without Debussy’s liberated, roaming abandon. Rothman and Gibson used low piano harmonics to create a patient, meditative atmosphere anchored by the resonance of the piano. Norton’s response utilized two pianos (Vicki Ray joined Robson on stage for this) for spacious, overlapping textures that in their freedom managed to capture something of Debussy’s penchant for fleeting sentimentality, that return later as tinted, softly-distorted memories. Also in this vein was Robson’s own reaction, a magic act of sorts, summoning rich timbres and sonorities that moved seamlessly between the piano and electronics.
It might have been interesting to have seen the works paired directly with their inspirational counterpart, but hearing the progression of Debussy’s original twelve etudes in direct sequence, in my opinion, better prepared the audience by giving a framework to identify and appreciate the various types of inspiration and influence employed by the commissioned works. It is rare that a solo piano recital of this length can maintain my interest throughout, but the quality of Robson’s performance and the strength of the music was certainly worthy of the audience’s attention. And from what I could hear in muffled murmurs around the hall between pieces, Piano Spheres has succeeded in building an audience that is willing to give that attention, and which is appreciative of the talent presented.