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Sound itself was the focus of the last week of concerts of the Foothills Chamber Music Festival. Surrounded by the reflections and refractions of the crystalline sculptures of the Jon Kuhn Gallery on August 20, all three of the Festival's pianists used the precisely tuned Boston piano to reveal full ranges of sound, colors and timbres in a dozen diverse samples of the keyboard literature. The players were festival co-founder Rachel Matthews, Byron Schenkman and David Shimoni. Matthews, a Winston-Salem native and NCSA graduate, received a doctorate in piano performance from the Peabody Institute. She is founder and artistic director of City Music, a chamber music festival in Seattle. Schenkman, pianist and harpsichordist, is artistic director of Seattle Baroque and an internationally known recitalist and recording artist. NC native Shimoni attended high school at the NCSA, earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College, and received Masters degrees in both solo and collaborative piano from the Juilliard School. Besides his commitment to the standard repertory, he is a strong advocate of contemporary music. To save repetition, all three pianists displayed consummate technique, complete mastery of a wide range of musical styles, and individual views of the repertory, within established traditions. All three gave brief and apt comments on their selections and how they related to the whole program.
Shimoni's first set of three selections opened with the wildest item, "Primitive" (1942), by John Cage. The short early work for prepared piano was composed for a dance choreographed by Wilson Williams. "Prepared" in this case involved screws inserted between the strings. Much of the writing was repetitive, with a driving rhythm. Some parts suggested electronic sounds, and much of it reminded me of a very sick upright piano heard once in an Appalachian church. While Matthews "de-fanged" the piano strings, Shimoni explained the musical "ecological snapshot" that Olivier Messiaen intended for the pieces in his Catalogue d'oiseaux . In addition to the bird song of the selection, "L'Alouette Calandrelle" ("Short-toed Lark"), others found in the same niche, such as kestrels and quail, are also heard, along with a lovely, succinct figure that evokes the hot afternoon sun of Provence. A leftover screw caused laughter when the pianist tried to play a sample of the last motif. His performance of Debussy's "La serenade interrompue," No. 9 of Book I of the Préludes, was crisp and clear, with the Spanish guitar and the constantly interrupted serenade perfectly evoked.
Schenkman is at home with the harpsichord and the piano. By abstaining from using the pedal and closely controlling volume, he kept a sense of the older instrument in elegant performances of "Le Rossingnol en Amour," by François Couperin, and Jean-Philippe Rameau's "La Rappel des Oiseaux," with its beautiful trills and ornaments. Sandwiched between them was an early work by Henry Cowell, "The Lover Plays His Flute," which begins with a very simple and lovely melody that is given five variations, the last of which has a five-note tone cluster. Later works call for the pianist to use his fist or entire forearm for huge tone clusters.
From Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos, Rachel Matthews selected three numbers: "Chords Together and In Opposition," "Melody Against Double Notes" and "Harmonics." For the latter, a key was depressed and that string was allowed to resonate harmonically when a related key was played. Matthews said that composer Frederic Chopin took advantage of this harmonic effect in the scoring of his Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27/2, which an old handbook called the cheval de bataille of the professional pianist, "demanding very perfect technique and consummate taste for its adequate rendition." The Chopin received an elegant reading that maximized the range of sound color and avoided any trace of false sentimentality.
Each pianist took up slightly longer pieces after intermission. Schenkman brought out well articulated lines and gave full value to the important silences in Mozart's brilliant Fantasy in C Minor, K.475. The five contrasting sections were integrated into a convincing whole.
Matthews, using a score for the only time, made a good case for the rather avant-garde "Eclogue" (1941) by Richard Wilson. She said the composer intended to celebrate the sound of the piano. Not immediately listener-friendly, it featured a strikingly bright, high treble part and, near the end, dampened notes. The instrument's full range was certainly very fully exploited.
Shimoni chose works that gave two different views of water. "El Lago" ("The Lake"), by the too-rarely-performed Federico Mompou, featured a quiet, undulating rhythm above a still melody and ended "ppp." In complete contrast, Ravel's "Jeux d'eau," which the pianist said could be translated as "The Play of Waters" or "Water Games," was all rapid motion. Inspired by fountains, the score is prefaced by a line from the poet Henri de Régnier, "The river god laughs at the water as it caressed him."