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UNCG's biennial Focus on Piano Literature Symposium has become the unofficial start of the summer's musical happenings in the Triad. This year's theme, "Paris in the 1920s," allowed for an exploration of the rich artistic outpouring emanating from the French capital immediately after WWI. It also provided the opportunity to glance down the music nooks and crannies for some of the less-frequently performed pieces in the piano literature.
As Andrew Willis, Focus' artistic leader, wrote in the program, "Paris was the place in which to drown the anguish of the war years ...." And what a collection of musicians passed through the streets of the City of Lights during those years!
The opening concert on Thursday night in the School of Music's Recital Hall began with a piece that was neither written for the piano nor in Paris. Manuel de Falla's Concerto for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Violin and Violoncello was dedicated to and premiered by Wanda Landowska in Barcelona. It is a wild and bizarre three-movement work with musical ideas that don't always pan out. And it owes much more to Stravinsky than to Spain.
The musicians playing the work — Andrew Willis, harpsichord, Tadeu Coelho, flute, Ashley Barret, oboe, Kelly Burke, clarinet, John Fadial, violin, and Beth Vanderborgh, cello — infused the score with great spirit and spiky rhythms.
Maurice Ravel's "Frontispice" from 1918 was written as a frontispiece for a collection of poems by Ricciotto Canudo. The curious composition, lasting less than five minutes, is written for two pianos, five hands. At the keyboards were Juan Pablo Andrade and Elizabeth Loparits with Dalyn Cook providing the "extra" hand. Program notes (by Dalyn Cook) explain that the work is "a clever experiment in numerology," but the intricacies of the numbers are lost on the listener. What is apparent is that the work begins with a murmuring texture that would make contemporary minimalists proud. The four-minute composition ends with a loud block-chord chorale that was not always in synch between the two instruments.
George Gershwin's An American in Paris seems like an obvious choice for such an evening of music making. This arrangement, for two pianos (with Andrade and Loparits again), was the composer's own version of his orchestral "rhapsodic ballet." Although one might think an all-piano adaptation would lose important color, this sturdy performance caught the rhythmic vitality so essential to the score. And the blues sections were evocatively played as well. Here the players' ensemble was flawless.
The program concluded with Maurice Ravel's 1919-20 La Valse, an orchestral work that was on the composer's mind as early as 1906. Ravel provided both this two-piano version, performed by Vincent van Gelder and Inara Zandmane, as well as a solo piano arrangement. The work is less of a straight-ahead dance as it is an exploration of the inner spirit of a waltz. The composition opens with hallucinogenic whiffs of waltz-like fragments before coalescing into a full-blown dance under bright lights. Van Gelder and Zandmane (a husband-wife team) brilliantly brought the work to life. Full of rhythmic give and take, virtuosic glissandos and, curious, sudden halts, the duo caught the essence of this 12-minute composition that alternates between the dreamy and the grotesque, the elegant and the maniacal.
Two other evening concerts will be offered as part of this three-day event. Friday night will feature solo piano music as well as some melodies, and Milhuad's infamous ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit. Saturday night brings guest artist Jerome Lowenthal performing solo piano works by Poulenc, Stravinsky, Milhuad, Fauré and Ravel.