At 83, Dave Brubeck is one of the Grand Old Men of American Music, and never mind what kind of music. Indeed, in Brubeck's case, it's pretty hard to say. Here's a guy who served his country during WWII, attended Mills College on the GI Bill - studying with Darius Milhaud, no less - and then went on to revolutionize jazz and make it a mainstream kind of thing - to bring it out of the ghetto, in many respects. Yet all along, he has had at least one foot planted in the past, in "classical" music. And as a result, alongside his top sellers, he's written oratorios and orchestral pieces, some of which bear fingerprints of the genre that made him world-famous, and some of which do not. There's been a bit of a Brubeck renaissance in recent years. He played at Avery Fisher Hall on March 22, and some of his music - given by an ensemble that included two of his offspring - opened the 2003-4 season of Music for a Great Space in Greensboro. A two-CD set of his choral-orchestral music came out last year. A second CD of his "serious" works for solo piano has just been released by Naxos, coming on the heels of a CD of The Gates of Justice. These are good times for Brubeck fans.
John Salmon, who is about 30 years Brubeck's junior, give or take..., is not quite one of the Grand Old Men of American pianism, but his appearance is convincing enough - that white hair is, any way you cut it, distinctive - and his playing, over the years, has given far more pleasure than many artists with far greater name-recognition. Now as it happens, Salmon has a passion for Brubeck, and he's one of the movers and shakers in the aforementioned Brubeck renaissance. It's Salmon who recorded the new Naxos CD containing Brubeck's solo pieces - and the first one too, released on the perhaps aptly named Phoenix label. And it's Salmon who played a solo recital at St. Mary's School on the evening of March 23 that culminated in one of Brubeck's most fascinating pieces, the four-part Glances , which is almost Ivesian in its scope and is certainly Ivesian in its color and excitement.
The program, given on a mid-sized Steinway with a somewhat brittle and brash top in Smedes Parlor, the venerable room adorned with immense portraits of priests and, in one case, their charges, began with Bach's F-Sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue. The prelude is brief, brisk, and brash, and the fugue, powerfully stated on this occasion, is slow and somber. Salmon played splendidly, showing from the outset the outstanding pianism that has made him one of our finest mid-generation artists. He comes by his abilities honestly, of course, and he's a distinguished scholar, but his performances are not covered with dust from decaying tomes. And as it happens, Bach is perfect - we use that word advisedly - for a program that is to culminate in jazz, for there's literally no other composer whose music lends itself so well to jazz treatment (starting, maybe, with Goodman's "Bach Goes to Town"), or (as heard last weekend, during the New Century Saxophone Quartet's realization of Art of Fugue , reviewed immediately below) when played on instruments that are completely foreign to Bach's own personal experience. Salmon played the P&F straight, of course - but there can have been few people in the crowded room who failed to note it's lively qualities.
Next came Beethoven's G Major Sonata, Op. 14/2. Now as it happens, Salmon knows a thing or two about Beethoven, things that any thinking artist might also comprehend. Some Beethoven, as Professor Salmon explained and demonstrated in a revealing "Focus on Beethoven" presentation in 2002, is almost improvisatory in nature. The sonata played in Raleigh isn't, really, but those who had been in Greensboro two years ago surely sensed the links - and the reason for Salmon's programming. (For the record, Salmon created the "Focus on..." programs at UNCG, which continue this year with a big Bach bash , coordinated - for the first time - by the great fortepianist, Andrew Willis.)
Chopin was a freethinker, in his own way, and he invented the piano ballade, as Salmon reminded us. There's no doubt that the G Minor Ballade, Op. 23, astounded its first hearers, and in Salmon's sure hands, it was pretty amazing in Smedes Parlor. It would be a stretch to imagine Freddy Chopin in a smoky dive, hammering out this thing, but it is certainly a free - and freewheeling - piece. Salmon's dynamics were a few generations removed from the composer too - he's thought to have played everything relatively softly - but the contrasts were as we've come to expect, and the overall results were dazzling.
The short concert ended with Brubeck's Glances , four little pieces that form a sort of mini-suite into which the composer/pianist compresses a brief history of piano jazz, ranging from stride to blues to Fats Waller himself, all leavened by the master who is Brubeck and, here, brought to glowing life by Salmon, who may be one of Brubeck's most loyal disciples. We expected his playing of Glances , which is on his first Brubeck CD, to be revelatory, and we anticipated that his Beethoven would be, too, based on previous concerts, but we were frankly unprepared for Bach and Chopin of such quality. Based on this program, it is apparent that Salmon can play superlatively well just about anything he decides to take up.
The audience, which included a contingent of UNCG (or perhaps Women's College) alums, seemed to crave it all, and their demonstrative response elicited a single encore, the captivating ditty, "It's a Raggy Waltz," which the visiting artist introduced with the words, "Don't try to count it!" One can imagine Milhaud and Ives - and maybe Schoenberg, too - looking down on the proceedings with broad smiles on their faces.
There was a post-concert reception with homemade cookies and "green" punch. And the concert was, as is always the case at St. Mary's, free.