Delivered with an authority and unhesitating know-how that left no room for doubt, Shpachenko’s virtuoso program of new music for piano—both solo and electronically fleshed—revealed how convincingly present-day composers can match the prestidigital feats of Liszt and Chopin. Simultaneously, universal statements on life and art, expressed in a heartfelt lyricism still resounding almost audibly, emerged to elevate the afternoon event into something profound.
Vacating the ostensibly far-flung protectorate of Pasadena in favor of a more central Downtown Arts District, the Sound and Fury season touched down at Art Share LA, a flexible creative environment serving as gallery, workshop, and performance space. The venue’s edgy, industrially rustic atmosphere and attention-arresting exhibition comingled for the ideal new music terroir. Warm, supportive acoustics brought out the best of a dubious Kimball grand, whose surprisingly sweet, singing tone belied its dilapidated exterior.
At a hearty seventy-five minutes in length, Shpachenko’s thoughtfully ordered offering of uniformly winning pieces, centered on a theme of “quotations and homages,” was an homage to the audience—an inviting, overflowing musical cornucopia, impacting listeners all the more directly in its uninterrupted flow:
“Once I begin a program, I prefer to maintain intensity through to the end, rather than leave the stage midway,” commented Shpachenko in post-recital remarks. As if leading by example, the pianist’s sustained energy bolstered listeners into progressively deeper engagement throughout, up to the concluding work which seemed to arrive ahead of schedule.
Commissioned by Shpachenko herself, the program’s opening piece, Vera Ivanova’s 6 Fugitive Memories, set the tone for what was to follow in its variety, aphoristic wit, and evocative imagery. A festschrift of sorts, six clever pastiches perceptively comment on composers with anniversaries in 2016, year of the work’s premiere. Ivanova sensitively alluded to musical identifiers of each composer in concise reinterpretations of quoted material, leaving listeners hungry for more at every turn.
Calling listeners to attention in a torrent of thunderous tone clusters punctuated by intermittent treble range chirps, the opening sketch draws on the uncompromisingly modernist sixth sonata of Galina Ustvolskaya, a relentless procession of raw, barbaric sonority with only the faintest suggestion of anything resembling melody.
Committed classicist Prokofieff served as impetus for the next number, “Fugitive No. 2,” a response to the picturesque Visions Fugitives. A bubbly, effervescent accompaniment supported sweeping, rhapsodic gestures in the foreground for a contrasting emotional foil against the cool preceding and subsequent movements.
Palettes were cleansed in meditation and clarity, as only Feldman, the next movement’s guiding example, can organize into being. Gentle, bell-like note-moments melted to mark the passing of time, like the falling of delicate icicles.
Shortly, aromas of goulash and sun-scorched paprika came to mind in a movement after Hungarian composer Gyögy Kurtág, “Playing Cimbalom.” Shpachenko adroitly manipulated a fine wooden mallet on the piano’s strings, as if playing the Cimbalom—a Hungarian hammered dulcimer for which Kurtág provided the bulk of the repertoire.
The suite concluded in a surreal collision of two tensely co-existing icons of post-Romantic French music—Debussy and Satie, in “Debutie.” The famous opening chords of Satie’s first Gymnopédie are subtly paired with the initial whole-step cascade of Debussy’s prelude Voiles (“Veils” or “Sails,” or both…Debussy wouldn’t say). The two works find a peaceable if strained cohabitation. Satie’s soothing major sevenths meld with Debussy’s bleak, directionless whole-tone environment for a musical synthesis of Ivanova’s conception, a whole as great but different from its parts’ sum.
In Shpachenko’s dedicated hands, 6 Fugitive Memories proved a fully satisfying, complete listener experience in itself, without need of enhancements or additions. Yet the opening electronics of Tom Flaherty’s Rainbow Tangle, next on the program, signaled new sonic dimensions emerging to compliment and enrich the piano.
Setting out with a clear vision for her program, Shpachenko approached composers with a specific request: write a piece inspired by another composer. “I approach composers I know and like, and commission music to fit my programming concept,” the pianist articulated from the post-concert receiving line.
Her concept struck a chord with Flaherty, composer of two works on the program, who “immediately recalled a passage from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and relished the excuse to play with some its elements.” The Quartet’s seventh movement, “Tangle of rainbows for the angel who announces the end of time” provided the thematic vocabulary for Flaherty’s 2015 work. Vibratory repeated chords course up and down the piano’s range, expanding upon the gentle undulations in the piano part of Messiaen’s “Tangle.” Brilliant, original electronic elements as striking as the original Quartet’s instrumentation, heightened the ecstatic topic, while a crisp, interlocking hocket texture lent a drive and acerbic bite, galvanizing Messiaen’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Spun of more contemporary inspiration, Daniel Felsenfeld’s Down to You is Up, harkens back to the composer’s own early years, which were filled with the subversive sounds of The Velvet Underground. Felsenfeld’s three-movement work for piano solo draws on source material from the band’s debut album, “Velvet Underground and Nico.” The opening movement is a free adaptation of key melodic fragments and the piano part from “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
Belting the work’s energetic opening chords with the self-forgetful abandon of a rock star, Shpachenko set a decidedly rebellious mood, rousing listeners to heated attention. A contrastingly introspective mood shortly followed in “So Cold/So Lonely,” movement two of the cycle. Repurposing Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” as a musical loom, a collage of delicate chords started life as accompaniment to the original song—then the song was removed, leaving the accompaniment self-standing.
The final movement, “Everything Was Alright,” quoted more strictly, this time from “Beginning to See the Light.” Fiery charge returned to the hall as Underground’s darker elements rose up, channeled through a motoric bass ostinato and a blaze of squeezed, descending arpeggios, terminating resolutely.
Least quotational but equally relevant, the program’s next work, Close Ups (Through Tiny Eyes) by Stephen Cohn derives inspiration from Realist painting: “The art of depicting nature as seen by toads…,” notes Cohn. Augmentation and diminution—contrapuntal devices extant from Palestrina to the present—power the work in an interplay of expansion and contraction, ultimately heightening listener perception.
Meditative sonorities alternated with crashing chords and driving scalar figuration in 15ths. A cute, understated tremolo figure between the hands recurred continually, unifying contrasting elements and restoring listener orientation at regular intervals, finally returning in full forte for a decisive last word.
Forging ahead indefatigably, industrious Shpachenko spryly prepped the upcoming number, donning ear bud and microphone headset and issuing a brief sound-check. A conspicuous white screen instantly grew functional as the first slides of an art show materialized. Epitaphs and Youngsters, by Peter Yates, a cycle of melodramas (in the original meaning of the term: spoken word over music), honors four creative figures of intangible relation, connected by their meaning to the composer. Inspired by Shpachenko’s “absorbing presentations of eternal moments,” each movement is cast in a harmonic language reminiscent of the honoree, complimented by Shpachenko’s resonant sprechstimme on pertinent texts, and images by young artists Yates admires, Shpachenko’s own sons. A movement for naturalist John Muir features rugged quartal harmonies, while intricate contrapuntal lines accompany a quote by Glenn Gould, and an overflowing stream of words by juggler W. C. Fields stretches past a Gershwin-inspired musical tapestry, ending the work openly, in a tender moment of wonder.
Shpachenko resumed her seat at the piano—briefly—turning a sharp musical corner to ground listener sensibilities in the terse, steely brilliance of Nick Norton’s Piano Piece for Mr. Carter’s 100th Birthday. The aphoristic work, a reflection on the sinister sparkle of Elliot Carter’s Caténaires, uses all 88 keys exactly once in rapid-fire succession for a jolt of musical adrenaline to the senses.
The homage offering by Missy Mazzoli, Bolts of Loving Thunder, next on the lineup, is especially personal for pianists. Written for Emmuel Ax’s “Brahms then as now” project of 2014, the piece is an homage to Brahms, based closely on the Rhapsody No. 2 in G minor, op. 79, a repertoire staple of student and seasoned pianists alike. Reminiscing on her own “enthused but sloppy” renditions of the piece as a budding pianist, Mazzoli reinterpreted the Brahms Rhapsody by emphasizing its tempestuous effects in dense, thundering chords, dramatic hand-crossings, and lighting-like ascending arpeggios. Shimmering accompanimental tremolos recall the Rhapsody’s mysterious development section, while the key heartbeat rhythm of the Rhapsody’s second theme palpitates the new Bolts into an intense, vibratory finish.
The rhythmic drive quickly resurfaced in Tom Falherty’s Igor to Please—occupying final position in the program (officially). An eagerly awaited world premiere, Igor to Please immediately sets out to show Stravinsky as the great liberator of pulse, where Schönberg might be called liberator of pitch. Highly charged syncopations and sharp interplay of piano and electronics fill out source material from the famous “Augurs of Spring,” the startling moment in The Rite of Spring, where dancers lunge and stamp to throbbing blows of dissonance. Initially polarizing—indeed inciting a riot at its premier—the work is now canonical. Yet the “Augurs” retains its power to revitalize and stimulate, like an invigorating deep-tissue massage.
Scored for piano and electronics, Igor benefits from a rich palette of sonorities, including harpsichord and toy piano, as well as stereo-sonic effects. The work is slated for performance in an alternate, assuredly impressive instrumentation of two pianos and two toy pianos, with six pianists (among them Shpachenko). Hopefully the unique electronic effects will find expression in the acoustic version, for an equally pleasing rendition.
Billed a “bonus/encore” piece, Adam Borecki’s Accidental Mozart, the final musical number of the afternoon, was a good natured, zany parody of Mozart’s piano Sonata in C major, K. 545. In the ilk of Satie’s sardonic Sonatine Beauroctratique or the poignant Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum by Debussy—parodies of equally obligatory teaching repertoire—Borecki’s “set of very serious various,” breathes new life into the ubiquitous, tradition-encrusted classic. Each variation is modeled after a particular alcoholic potable, whether imported beer, boxed wine, rare whisky, or even stronger spirits. Evidently an expert in libations, Borecki conveyed the essence of each beverage with clear musical gestures, punctuated by humorous pop art slides. Audience members emerged a little closer, having shared a round of drinks.
Shpachenkos’s generous program was preceded by music of Sound and Fury founders, Christian Dubeau and Christine Lee. Lee performed her Crystal Glass, a piece about pure sound depicting the breaking of glass through the sparkling pops and crackles of granular synthesis. A haunting melody is accompanied by, and later accompanies, the tasteful electronic effects.
Dubeau presented the first four of his forthcoming set of twelve preludes for piano and electronics. The opus’s promising initial numbers treated of weighty environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains, where Dubeau grew up. Recorded material and live processes infused depth and additional meaning to the piano writing, complimenting it naturally.
Musical proceedings concluded, a cordial Shpachenko greeted enthused attendees. Stragglers later coalesced into an ad hoc reception at nearby Wurstküche, where gracious Stephen Cohn toasted to the pianist’s success, thanking her for “giving composers a reason to go on writing.” Shpachenko tasted her first sip of beer, pronouncing it smooth. A Chimay ale, the question arose whether it would figure in Adam Borecki’s next piece.
Microtonality is often quipped at as “the cracks between the piano keys.” It is tradition in our Western art culture to have the smallest interval be what is called a half step, or semitone; but why do we divide the octave into twelve semitones, why not eight or thirteen? In the live preview last week at Harvey Mudd College of the second volume of his Beyond Twelve series, Aron Kallay used an electronic keyboard to realize a six different composers’ takes on alternate tuning and temperament.
The program kicked off with I’m Worried Now by Monroe Golden. The first thing that struck me was the schizophonia – Aron would strike a key in what ought to be the lower register of the piano, and it would sound a note from a higher register. He would sweep his hand up and down the keys in a glissando and it seemed a crapshoot whether the notes would rise or fall. One of the notes I scribbled during the performance reads: “Vince Guaraldi on an ancient piano in a thunderstorm.” The piece is jazzy and tipsy. The thunderous low notes set apart from the tip-toeing upper melody. The retuning sometimes sounds intentional and other times not, to the intriguing effect that it would set my teeth on edge and then resolve into tonality, though no longer equal temperament; yes, during the performance I was certainly worried. All in all, music that moves your emotions and mind in such a rollercoaster is surely a triumph by Golden.
Alex Miller’s composition The Blur of Time and Memory used 1/10th (instead of ½, or half) steps. The result was that chords in which one or two notes move chromatically upwards seemed to peel away from the original chord identity to glide into another, like a chameleon shifting its coloring. The piece was meditative overall, intensified in sections by shifting harmonies and tugging the listener’s ear through tonal areas it is not used to visiting. It ended with an uncanny resemblance to wailing wind in a drafty room, like a ghost had haunted the keys to take the tuning out of whack.
Underbelly, by Stephen Cohn, utilized notes above and below the standard piano range, in which a dance fitting for the Mad Hatter’s tea party plays and the Jabberwocky thumps below in the bass region. The unfamiliar overtones from the bottom register give an otherworldly twist. The other parts of the piece resembled water music, but with more finesse and realism thanks to the microtonality at play. The smaller intervals gave an ultra-realistic fluidity to the cascade of notes winding through the recital hall.
The last work before intermission was Paths of the Wind by Bill Alves. It began as a wall of sound, like standing atop a windy mountain straining to hear the rumbling bass melody in the distance. The clusters of notes washed together and averaged into a drone which became a musical line unto itself. Like the Cohn piece’s effectiveness in using microintervals to enhance fluidity, Alves glided through notes like a bird on the wind, seemingly continuously rather than discretely. Without microtonality, there is no way a piano could sound so natural; it’s as if wind were transported directly into the hall and pitched to a melody, but still unfettered by tonality. A truly spellbinding work by Alves.
Post-intermission we were treated to two more pieces, the first of which, Involuntary Bohlen Piercing, was composed by Nick Norton. This used temperament in an even more unorthodox manner, by cutting up a perfect twelfth instead of a perfect octave into segments. The twelfth is divided into thirteen even segments, each slightly less than a quarter-tone larger than our equal-tempered half step. The first scribble I have for this one reads: “Drunken tip-toeing complete with running into things.” In other words, the piece begins hesitant and gentle, even a little uncertain, but is soon brought out of its nascent stages by magnificent Rachmaninoff-esque crashes. Reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Six Small Pieces for Piano, minimalists like Terry Riley, and a peppering of Impressionism, this piece was never dissonant, but always pleasant even when alien. The pacing was slower than the other composers’, but worked within the frame of the hesitant beginning and end. The tolling bells near the end seemed to be a clock announcing the end of the piece, or perhaps, in Norton’s case, the nearing completion of his PhD.
The concert ended with Clouds of Clarification by Robert Carl. Given my adoration for the book and movie “Cloud Atlas,” it was difficult to extract my mind from that world. Carl explained before the performance that the piece included four movements played without break: water, earth, wind and fire. After a stately opening, the first high note not belonging to the equal temperament was jarring like a shard of glass. The aquatic movement came off like water dripping from stalactites, and had a distinctly crystalline feel. The music split the difference between pentatonic and whole tone scales as it moved into the earth movement, lumbering across the keys. Upon reaching the air movement, Aron’s hands looked like birds flitting on the keyboard, and it was reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s bird pieces. Nearing the end, each low thwomp in the bass was ear cleansing relief between microtonal clusters, like healing a burn from the fire movement. My favorite part of the piece was watching the composer react to Aron’s portrayal. He knew every note he wrote; this piece, like everything he has written, is his child, and he was infectiously joyous hearing it realized. I believe most of audience felt his enthusiasm, and I hope all may be as enthusiastic as microtonal music when they encounter it.