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The Adams Foundation of Ventura, California, in an effort to encourage a restoration of the vanishing solo recital, establishes piano recitals in select smaller communities throughout America. Their biannual concerts in the jewel box-like Whitley Auditorium of Elon University have presented a broad range of the finest American pianists of both the older and younger generations. Soloists have included the late Ruth Laredo, John and Richard Contiguglia, Ann Schein, Jon Nakamatsu, Ian Hobson, Leon Bates, and Joseph Kalichstein. The artists have at their disposal the rich range of sound of Elon's beautifully restored 1923 Steinway D piano.
In every generation there are pianists of considerable talent who are heavily marketed, perform a large number of concerts nationally and internationally, and are widely known because of media exposure. Then there are others, more retiring from the glare of the public spotlight, more active as teachers who give fewer, more select concerts. Their artistry can catch the listener unawares and "blow them away." Such was the case of this fall's Adams recitalist Jeanne Stark-Iochmans. The Belgian-born pianist graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Brussels with highest marks in the previous twenty years. An International Queen Elisabeth Competition scholarship bought her to the US for a period of advanced study with the legendary Mieczyslaw Horsowski and Edwine Behre. She has been Artist-in-Residence at Four Seasons Concerts' Yachats Music Festival in Yachats, Oregon, for 28 years, and she performs regularly with Four Seasons Concerts in their Distinguished Artists Series in the San Francisco Bay area. Besides her mastery of the repertoire from the baroque era to the 20th century, Stark is a specialist in the works of Oliver Messiaen, her relationship dating back to a performance of his "Turangalila" Symphony under the enterprising Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.
Stark's first selection was a group of three Sonatas (in D, L. 461, in D minor, L.413, and in D, L.465) of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). She eschewed any tinkly evocation of the composer's harpsichord but drew upon the full range of the restored Steinway's extended sonority. The first sonata featured fast tempos and glittering triplets while the last was vivacious, opening with fanfares. The slower middle sonata had a subtle, bittersweet melody, gorgeous trills, and a hint of a musette's drone near its conclusion.
Stark has made the last three sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven a focus of her recitals and has issued a live concert recording on CD. Her interpretation of Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109, was mesmerizing. She beautifully and effortlessly played every sudden and mercurial shift in tempos in the first movement. The perfectly-judged tempo of the Prestissimo interlude was followed by a strong characterization of the theme and six variations of the last movement. Stark's dynamic range, rich sonority, and depth of musicianship were reminiscent of the best pianists from the middle of the last century.
Stark wisely reordered the sequence of the post-intermission printed program, beginning with a breathtaking performance of the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, Op. 47 by Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). According to Liszt, this ballade was improvised on the spot for the German poet Heinrich Heine. Stark's hands wove a colorful and rich tapestry in sound, her seamless musical line seeming to have been just extemporized on the spot.
Many fellow critics bemoan the lack of 20th century and contemporary works on the programs of recitalists. Stark's choice of two selections from Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus by Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) were most welcome, and the vast and colorful sound world she conjured up was breathtaking. She chose No. 14, "Regard des Anges" ("Gaze of the Angels"), and No. 15, "Le basier de l'enfant-Jésus" ("The Kiss of the Child Jesus"). Stark spoke briefly, saying Messiaen was an ornithologist who used bird songs in most of his works and was a deeply mystical Catholic whose compositions were criticized for their intimate blend of ethereal mysticism with sensuality. Stark is a seasoned artist of slight build but it was a vast edifice in sound she conjured up — thundering low notes, a broad palette of tonal color, hushed pp, and a chorus of heavenly bird-like melodies.
The prolonged standing ovation of the enthusiastic audience was rewarded with a magnificent and monumental performance of the "La cathédrale engloutie" ("The Engulfed Cathedral") of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Stark's robust sonority refused to yield to an inopportune freight train's passing.