Two concerts in Salt Lake City this coming weekend highlight outstanding programming options by major institutions.
GINA BACHAUER INTERNATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION: CHING-YUN HU, CONCERT OF LISZT
Pianist Ching-Yun Hu remembers how the stereotypes about Franz Liszt were ingrained in her as a child when she was studying music. “This was not a composer we were told to learn and that his music was too hard and was more for showing off technique,” she says in an interview with The Utah Review.
Then, in 2019, when she was invited to participate in the 40th anniversary program of the Liszt Foundation in Utrecht, she was told that her recital would have to comprise entirely works from the Hungarian composer and pianist who was among the most popular and well-known musical personalities of the Romantic era. “I initially thought of a recital of Liszt and friends but then it became a wonderful adventure that gave me the opportunity to look deeper into his music, his spirituality and philosophy,” she adds.
Her relationship to his music has solidified. This week, Ching-Yun will perform the same all-Liszt program from Utrecht in Salt Lake City, as part of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation’s concert series. The concert will be on March 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. The concert also will be filmed and made available for streaming on demand, with purchased tickets, from March 31 to May 31.
The concert will feature well-known Liszt transcriptions and originals as well as several of his pieces that are not performed as frequently in concert. Ching-Yun says she envisions her program as a cinematic musical journey celebrating his musical legacy. Of course, the elements include the virtuosity and pyrotechnics that ignited a massive European wave of Lisztomania during the prime of his youth. That term was coined by German poet Heinrich Heine.
But, there also are the examples of the masterly cosmopolitan command and sensitivity for many other dimensions of the humanities that he evoked, including art, poetry, spirituality and the nobility of ideas and ethics.
Ching-Yun is among a generation of contemporary pianists who are making a compelling case for acknowledging Liszt not just as a brilliant performer but also as a composer who expanded tremendously the expressive possibilities with the keyboard instrument. As pianist Kirill Gerstein said in a 2016 BBC interview, Liszt was “a composer of revolutionary works that exerted pivotal influence on those that followed – also a great teacher, humanist and possibly the nicest of the great musicians.” He added, “When you play Liszt’s notes on the keyboard, your hands get to trace the outlines of the shapes his hands created. Similarly, the greatness of his spirit permeates his compositions.”
Ching-Yun echoes Gerstein’s words. “I was astonished about what I had missed during all of those years,” she says. “All of it is fascinating. There is the genius in the transcriptions of great literature that also became just as great as the master originals. It is easy to connect to his music for seeing what a big heart he had and how he deeply cared about humanity and society.”
The program exemplifies Ching-Yun’s holistic sentiments about Liszt. She will open, as she did in Utrecht, with Les jeux d’ eaux à la Villa d’Este (The Fountains of the Villa d’Este), from Années de pèlerinage. This is followed by transcriptions of six lieder, with five of them coming from Schubert originals including Ave Maria and Erlkonig, as well as Ständchen von Shakespeare, Leise flehen meine Lieder and Auf dem Wasser zu Singen. The sixth is Robert Schumann”s Widmung. After the intermission, she will continue with the set of Three Concert Études: Il lamento, La leggierezza, and Un sospiro. The closer will be the pyrotechnic crowd-pleaser Spanish Rhapsody.
The Études are a paragon of the synthesis of Liszt’s capacity for complex technical patterns and poetic settings. Cast in A flat major with a four-note melodic phrase that courses through the piece, Il lamento at times sounds like it could have been written by Chopin. La leggierezza (which translates to “lightness”) pops with brilliant runs that become delicate once the pianist resists the temptation to play them at a tempo that seems faster than it should be. And, Un sospiro (“sigh”) is set in D flat major, an exquisite example of musical Impressionism that starts with a simple melody. This particular work was among the most cherished pieces for the composer who regularly played it for nearly 40 years as part of his repertoire.
Ching-Yun plans to record this program later this spring in France, for a new album release. In addition to her international performing schedule, she also looks forward to marking the 10th anniversary of the summer festival of the Philadelphia Young Pianists’ Academy (PYPA). She founded the academy to help young pianists fulfill their dreams of becoming international performing artists.
For more information about tickets and the remainder of the concert season, see the Bachauer website.
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: SONGS OF PLAY
Heralding spring, the Songs of Play concert at the Libby Gardner Hall at The University of Utah (March 13, 3 p.m.), returns to NOVA Chamber Music Series’ unique juxtaposing programming brand with two bookends being quintets representing composers of entirely different backgrounds: Sergei Prokofiev, a 20th century Russian composer of the Soviet era, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Anglo-African composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp Minor).
But, most notable are two world premieres in between the Prokofiev and Coleridge-Taylor works — Pearl, a sonata for violin and piano, by Stephanie Ann Boyd and Counterplay by Luke Dahn, for trombone and piano.
Dahn’s newest work reflects his love for counterpoint and for chess. Indeed, the trombone seems to be the perfect instrument for a two-player chamber piece with Counterplay as the title. As chess players know, counterplay makes the game that much more challenging when one player throws in moves that complicates the other player’s strategy to achieve seamlessly their objective. Thus, with Dahn’s mastery and deep studies of contrapuntalism, the trombone and piano spar earnestly but also playfully.
Counterplay is another example of serendipity in the creative process. The work was composed with two local musicians in mind: Mark Davidson, Utah Symphony’s principal trombonist, and pianist Viktor Valkov, Dahn’s faculty colleague. In an interview with The Utah Review, Dahn says he always has specific musicians in mind when he is writing a work. In this case, Davidson commissioned Counterplay. Dahn already had collaborated with Valkov, including most recently composing a set of eight mazurkas for him, as inspired by the Chopinesque model of this dance form. Of course, Dahn also experimented with the form and harmonies, with their own misaligned effects to achieve a unique syncopated rhythmic expression. Valkov recorded the mazurkas for an album featuring Dahn’s piano music, which will be released this summer on the Albany Records label.
In Counterplay, Dahn says he “wanted to give Mark [Davidson] a chance to sing.” The piece opens with a march that the composer says might remind listeners of the grand promenade in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The middle section includes lyrical elements for the trombonist to showcase. Also, there is the subtlest uneven sense in the rhythmic pulse of the march.
Among the projects Dahn has been working on is a deep dive into the four-part Bach chorales, representing more than two decades of research. “The chorales encapsulate Bach’s mastery as a model,” he adds. What started as a primarily pedagogical project has blossomed into a major enterprise that has attracted the interests of musicians, scholars, and students of Bach’s choral music, in particular. Only a portion of the four-part chorales that Bach composed have survived, according to Dahn, who adds that many editions are problematic about the original settings of the chorales, historical details, or the performance instructions. Dahn is in the process of completing a new edition of the Bach chorales, which is expected to be the most comprehensive available in musicology regarding the topic and relevant editions of the works. As he describes at his website, “the edition presents [among many other features] thorough contextual information with each chorale, including chorale text title and author, chorale tune title, composer/origin, and Zahn number, original liturgical occasion, and original performance date (if known).” The edition will include original German texts as well as instrumental parts wherever available and appropriate.
Regarding the second premiere, a good point to start thinking about Pearl, Boyd’s sonata in three movements for violin and piano, is the wonderful exercise of tracing the lineage of the musical family tree. As a teen in Ann Arbor, Boyd had violin lessons with John Kendall, who had introduced the Suzuki Method to American string teachers and students in the 1960s. Kendall was nearly 90 at the time. Incidentally, his son (Christopher), a lutenist, was dean of The University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater and Dance. “He [John] would not accept money for lessons but he asked for help on several tasks in his office,” Boyd says in an interview with The Utah Review.
Boyd recalls that Kendall had a map of the U.S. and world in his office and he asked her to call out a region, which was marked with thumb tacks representing the students from that particular area whom he had taught. “It represented 70 years of teaching, which I thought was the bee’s knees,” she adds.
The experience with Kendall, who passed away at the age of 93 in 2011 when Boyd was a sophomore at the Ann Arbor school, made a profound imprint upon the composer. It led to the 50 State Sonata Project in 2015 as a tribute to her mentor and the premiere of Amerigo, a sonata for violin and piano in six movements that was commissioned by a violinist in each of the 50 states. The work represents a journey across all of the time zones encompassed by the U.S.
In 2017, Boyd wrote Nostrorbis, a seven-movement work for solo violin, in which each section represents a continent. That work, commissioned by 35 violinists around the world, was “performed on a ten-concert tour of ancient Faroe Islands churches, in a bar in New York City, at a city-wide music festival in the Netherlands, on a cross-genre music series in Dublin, and in concert halls in Macedonia,” as her website indicates.
Boyd had planned to do the next World Sonata Project iteration before the pandemic brought live concerts to a full ground stop but the premiere of Pearl, the newest commission, finally is landing in Salt Lake City for its world premiere. The work’s first public performance will feature Madeline Adkins, Utah Symphony concertmaster and former NOVA music director, and Valkov, who is performing in both world premieres for this concert.
The three movements – Fantasia Ultraviolet, Lux Aquae and Dance Iridescence – harken to the natural elements and features of the violin. “Madeline [Adkins] mentioned how difficult it can be at times to cross borders when you have an instrument with ivory or materials that are protected in certain countries,” Boyd explains. “It is fascinating to think that this might be an issue but it makes sense when you consider that some baby elephants are not growing tusks, thanks to evolution in process and the memories they carry about the fears of poaching and being killed.”
Likewise, Boyd’s own fascination with mother of pearl and its natural iridescence comes into the creative process. For example, she thinks about her mother talking about passing down to her a cherished pearl necklace. And, of course, there is the pearl eye in a violin bow.
Boyd also sees the World Sonata Project through the lens that an anthropologist or historian would use. She recalls that Mariana Rodriguez from Guatemala talked about how one of her favorite pieces – Vivaldi’s Winter concerto from Four Seasons – reminds her of rain falling. Of course, the difference makes sense for a musician who lives in a country where winter does not bring snow or ice. Or, Oriana Masternak from Poland, who recalls why lullabies are among the most potent musical memories for her. There was a time when citizens were admonished for speaking the Polish language in public (during the Iron Curtain years) but singing lullabies to children at bedtime reinforced the significance of keeping their cultural and linguistic identity.
Boyd, a Michigan native who works in Manhattan, also composes melodic music about women’s memoirs and the natural world for symphonic and chamber ensembles. Her prodigious portfolio includes commissions from 37 countries.
For more information about the concert and tickets, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.