Just last month, internationally known pianist José Ramón Mendez was in Utah to judge the state chapter of the Music Teacher National Association’s piano competitions. Later this week, Mendez will return to perform his Salt Lake City debut, in ¡Jaleo!, a concert of solo piano works by Chopin and Spanish composers Antonio Soler, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados.
The concert is the second of the 2023-24 season for the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation. Mendez, who is assistant professor of piano at the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, will perform Nov. 10 at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts’ Jeanné Wagner Theatre.
At the age of seven, Mendez, who was born in Spain, performed on television and radio stations in his country. He made his solo debut at 11, at the Oviedo Philharmonic Society in Spain, becoming the youngest performer ever to do so in the society’s history. In an interview with The Utah Review, Mendez explained that music was always a part of his family. His father was a music conservatory professor and his grandfather was a musician as well. The young Mendez was introduced to accordion as well as piano. “It was just such a natural thing to learn from my father,” he said. By the time he was a teen, Mendez had to choose which instrument he wanted to focus on for advanced studies and performance. “It was not a difficult decision,” he added.
Mendez explained that he has a “special affinity” for the Romantic Era repertoire, as well as the music of composers in his homeland. He also has, as he describes it, a “special space” for Bach and for Baroque music, in general. Mendez’s repertoire is eclectic in the best sense of the word.
In his youth, he attracted international attention when he performed Liszt’s first piano concerto under the baton of Sergiu Commissiona at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. He came to the U.S. when he was 18, to study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, where he studied with Solomon Mikowsky, Byron Janis and Miyoko Lotto, eventually earning his doctorate. Meanwhile, he won top prizes in international competitions, including Pilar Bayona, Hilton Head Island, the Frederick Chopin Competition in New York and Hermanos Guerrero International Piano Competition, among others.
In addition to numerous concerts around the world, he has been teaching professionally for 27 years. During the summers, he is the artistic director of the Gijon International Piano Festival in Spain.
The piano music of many of Spain’s greatest composers became most visible during the long career of Alicia de Larrocha, who performed the works of Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Federico Mompou and Isaac Albéniz, as well as Antonio Soler’s keyboard sonatas. Mendez said he is committed to carrying on de Larrocha’s great legacy, by being an ambassador for the music of his homeland.
For the first half of the program. Mendez will offer six selections from Chopin that are certainly familiar to Bachauer audiences (Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 45, Mazurka in E Minor, op. 17, no. 2, Mazurka in A Minor, op. 67, no. 4, Mazurka in C-Sharp Minor, op. 63, no. 3, Nocturne in D-Flat Major, op. 27, no. 2 and Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major, op. 60).
Mendez said he recently returned to playing Chopin after not having done so for a while. He added that he builds his programming in part based on key relationships, to highlight the harmonic transitions from the last note of one piece to the first of the following piece — bringing continuity to a tasting menu of various musical dishes.
He will follow the same approach in the second half of the program, which features two well-known works by two of Spain’s best known composers. But, he will open with two Soler works: Sonata No. 84 in D major and Sonata No. 88 in D-flat major.
From the 18th century, Soler was a monk who also was organist and choirmaster for a monastery near Madrid. It was there where Soler connected with Domenico Scarlatti, just a few years before one of Italy’s greatest keyboard composers of the Baroque Era died. After Scarlatti’s death, Soler took over his duties as keyboard teacher to the royal family and as the composer of sonatas for Scarlatti’s pupils. In the 1980 book A History of Spanish Piano Music, Linton Powell described how dutifully Soler followed the Scarlatti form. He added, “Although Soler has not proven to be an innovator in form, he does demonstrate originality in his modulations. That is not surprising when we consider that he wrote an important theoretical work, Llave de la modulación y antigüedades de la música (Madrid, 1762), which reveals his advanced ideas on modulation.”
While some pianists opt to perform the whole books of solo works for recitals, Mendez decided to sample selections from two standard-bearers of Spain’s piano repertoire: Albéniz’s Iberia and Granados’ Goyescas.
A collection of a dozen works, Iberia was written between 1905 and 1907. Normally, the entire Iberia set would take a bit more than 80 minutes to complete without a pause.
Mendez will offer three selections: El puerto, Evocación and Triana. In some instances, Albéniz was so concerned that the technical demands might make some of the pieces almost unplayable. He admitted that he could not play them and even great pianists such as Arthur Rubinstein added their occasional fixes to accommodate performances. The chord structures are highly complex, especially where double accidentals are indicated. There also are plenty of leaps, challenging hand-crossing passages and elaborate counter rhythms. Thus, El puerto and Triana are the rambunctious, happy-spirited bookends to the contemplative Evocación.
As, for the two selections from Granados’ Goyescas, Mendez’s focus on the smooth harmonic transitions from one section to the next correspond serendipitously to the fact that two selected movements are the only two of the entire work that directly reference Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes paintings which inspired them: El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) and El pelele (The Straw Man).
The first Goyesca selection comes from Part II, which became the work’s fifth movement, when it was completed in 1914. The painting (The Capricho no. 10) depicts a grieving maja holding her lover in her arms. About the second painting El pelele, Robert Hughes, in his 2003 acclaimed biography of the Spanish artist, wrote it was a quintessential example of “bucolic amusements” for Goya’s royal patrons. The painting hangs in the Prado in Madrid and its catalog description is as follows: “Four young women laugh and play at blanket-tossing a doll or manikin in the air. The latter’s movement is the result of their caprice. Its carnival origins are visible in the use of masks and joking, but the blanket-tossing of a doll is used here by Goya as a clear allegory of women’s domination of men.” It aets up a delightful return to Mendez’s ¡Jaleo! concert theme.
For tickets and more information about the concert, see the Bachauer website.