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Milton Rubèn Laufer, the new visiting Assistant Professor of Piano in the Peace College Department of Music, gave his first Peace recital on Tuesday night, November 6, 2001, in Kenan Recital Hall. The Chicago native has been performing since the age of twelve and trained at the University of Michigan, Rice University, Eastman School of Music and the Moscow Conservatory. Prior to his arrival at Peace, Laufer spent several years in Spain, where he concertized and did research under the auspices of a Fulbright grant. He has made a specialty of Spanish music, especially that of Isaac Albéniz, whose manuscripts he has been working on to produce new published editions.
I was looking forward to hearing more of Laufer after his first Raleigh performance on the Smedes Parlor concert series at St. Mary's School in September with Greg Gelb in the Bernstein Clarinet Sonata (my review of that concert is in the CVNC archives for September). His impressive realization of that difficult piece displayed an admirable ability to play cleanly and clearly at top speeds, to sharply delineate rhythm and pulse, and to convey great character in his physical approach to the music.
All these talents were again at his command for the Peace recital. He opened his program with his strongest suit, four pieces from Suite Española by Albéniz. The first, "Granada," had a marvelously languid fluidity, the repeated high arpeggios in the right hand subtly varying in dynamics and tempo. He gave the melodic mid-section a Chopinesque quality that whetted my appetite for the Chopin selections on the second half. Laufer attacked the strong dance rhythm of "Cuba" with more vigor that it is generally played but made it an exciting and sensuous experience. He played up the differences of the intense and hushed sections of the famous "Asturias" (well-known in its guitar version also), the rapidly repeated passages making driving the music vibrantly. "Sevilla" again showed off his vivid rhythmic sense, with skilled accuracy and clarity in the fast-paced runs.
Laufer's connection with this music was evident in his body language. Alternately hunching over with an ear almost to the keyboard and wagging his head with a smile at a particularly jaunty passage, he conveyed the joys and emotions of this appealing, nationalistic music. There were noticeable approximations of chords throughout these four pieces, certainly forgivable in light of the obvious pressure of a debut program.
Curiously, for the rest of his program, Laufer seemed intent on emphasizing percussiveness and showmanship over introspection and feeling. To conclude the first half, he played Debussy's "L'Isle joyeuse" crisply building to an amazingly large tone in the splashy ending, dazzling in the difficult fingering. But the hard-edged approach had little of the mystical, evanescent quality that the piece can convey.
The second half began with three of Chopin's most turbulent Etudes. This would have been the perfect time to show a more thoughtful, lyrical side of Laufer's playing by programming some of the quietly beautiful Etudes. However, by selecting the three known as "Revolutionary," "Octaves," and "Winter Wind," there was an overload of flashy pianism. There is no denying his abilities to conquer the fiendish chords and runs of such pieces but his aggressive performances minimized the underlying delicacy and emotion that pervade all of Chopin, even in these more outwardly showy selections.
Laufer finally gave himself a chance to reveal a thoughtful approach with Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in f minor. The fact that the piece is more lyrical than the previous three made for some welcomed subdued moments, but even these seemed to hold little interest for Laufer, who more readily responded to the bigger moments of the piece, adding almost too much physicality when pointing up various effects. I was disappointed that the soulful qualities displayed earlier in the Albéniz were not evoked in the Chopin.
Laufer's final work on the program was his own arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" for solo piano, a ten-minute version he made at the request of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain. Laufer gave the music a jazzy flair, showing off a deft cross-hand technique in several passages - a nice American hat-tip for a finale but yet another key-pounding, grandly played selection.
For an encore, he could have chosen to send us all away with something contemplative and serene, especially in contrast to all that had gone before, but chose instead one of the most extroverted of showpieces, De Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance." His already-established skills at sharp rhythms with high-speed articulation made the piece exciting and visceral but it was a missed opportunity to show us something we had not experienced already.
The virtually full auditorium gave him a sustained ovation, rightly so for his energy, his virtuosity, his engaging stage personality and his showmanship. For his next recital, I hope he will decide that, having established his technical skills, he can now choose some works which will bring out the connection he so beautifully established