Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michael Brown at Market Square Concerts: A Review of sorts

Normally, I don’t review concerts but I’ll make an exception for Michael Brown’s performance last night with Market Square Concerts’ January recital at Whitaker Center.

First of all, I was looking forward to the program because of the program – and by that I mean the repertoire: one of my favorite and usually under-heard Beethoven Sonatas, the “Pastoral”; an early work by Chopin that is also rarely heard in concert; and a Schubert sonata that is also rarely heard live, the D Major Sonata, D.850. Admittedly, in my former life as a piano player (making the distinction between that and pianist on purpose), I worked on both of these sonatas, so I could claim an additional level of familiarity with them beyond that of a listener.

Secondly, I do not care for the acoustics of the performance space (and this is my opinion, not necessarily that of any arts organization in town I may be associated with). There have been several performances there where the grand piano sounds uneven, awkward, unmusical, whether it’s the acoustics, the instrument or the way it was has been tuned and voiced - or the way it was played.

After some bad weather that, fortunately, left time for streets to be cleared of what snow we did get – people freaking out about 5” of snow the way we used to react to a foot – I was looking forward to a performance by a young pianist who’s just won some serious awards and competitions and is all of 22 years old. Stereotypes are hard to kill – exuberant youth and technical precision, usually the hallmark of the competitive mind-set, often lack mature reflection and soulfulness of interpretation.

And over the years, I have heard a number of technically proficient young pianists arriving on the circuit who can play, even dazzle, quite well. But I tend not to remember their names. Judging from the frequency with which many of them descend below the level of their agents’ expectations, perhaps I’m not the only one with this problem.

It’s not that a name like Michael Brown will be easier to remember, though it certainly helps. What I will remember is hearing a pianist with such a sense of color who can play with such a beautifully controlled soft dynamic level that can tame that beast of a grand piano in a hall generally unforgiving to anything close to a nice sound and blend.

But most of all, I’ll remember a pianist who found such incredible – if quiet and unassuming – joy in the music he offered to share with us.

The "Pastoral" is a more understated work than we normally associate with Beethoven – it’s not famous like the “Moonlight” written just before it; it’s not dramatic like the “Tempest” written right after it; it’s not virtuosic like the “Appassionata” or the “Waldstein” and it doesn’t present the puzzles to solve like the Late Sonatas.

The Schubert is a similarly gentle, laid-back work, the product of a summer holiday spent doing nothing at a health spa while a friend of his recuperated from an attack of gout. Beyond the last three sonatas, all written in the span of a month shortly before his death, Schubert’s sonatas are under-represented in the concert hall. This one has an inordinately long slow movement and a main theme in the finale that can sound just plain silly.

And I could imagine people feeling slighted not to have a thunderous war-horse on the program. If it’s not familiar, fast and loud, how are people to appreciate how someone can play?

If I ever wanted to applaud between movements, it would have been after the slow movement of the Schubert if only to acknowledge the control, the scope and focus of his playing, the beauty of his sound, and his ability to make sense – not to mention magic – out of something that always struck me as diffuse, saccharine and never-ending. Though not technically challenging, this movement seemed the hardest to play and the reason I’d given up on it: too much work for the return. But not in this case.

To call his performance a revelation might be overstepping things but it was clear this is an imaginative interpreter who can get beneath the surface, proving that “playing music” is more than just transferring what’s on the printed page into audible sounds.

By the last movement, with its simple folk-like tune, I could imagine Schubert sitting in someone’s living room, so wrapped up in his own playing that he forgets other people are listening, and I’m drawn into his sheer joy of taking something so child-like – and so different from being childish as it usually sounds with its clock-like toyish charm – and showing it off without any trace of self-consciousness, coming back to it with a sense of wonder after each luminous digression.

In most performances, I would be thinking of “cartoon music” viewed by an adult trying desperately to reconnect with forgotten childhood. If you have ever seen the light in a child’s face while watching some favorite cartoon, untainted by adult experience and there for the sheer joy of it, that was what I heard in this music last night and Schubert’s simplicity suddenly became sublime.

There is a personal element to Brown’s playing that manages to draw you in until you forget you’re in a large auditorium listening to a public recital. It’s not because – as critics complained of Chopin – he draws a “small sound” from the piano (that is not how you play “soft”) but because his quiet playing is so well controlled and deep that it reaches to the balcony as if you’re in a much smaller room. This is what actors call projection and how a whisper can be made dramatic.

This is something lost in a world of amplification where performers play to the gallery, a world where special effects make the movie and a high point on TV is another car crash and explosion.

Many people think of “Romantic Music” as big moments, high emotions, fast fingers and mad dashes of excitement. They tend to forget the softer moments, the magic and pure delight in sound for the sake of sound, the soul that transcends reality to go from the heart to the heart.

Perhaps that’s why these sonatas are not performed as often – because they’re just so difficult to play well.

- Dick Strawser

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