World-class performances in Salt Lake City: Pianist Hong Xu at Bachauer, Ligeti and Brahms concert for NOVA Chamber Music Series

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HONG XU: GINA BACHAUER INTERNATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION

It was a perfect homecoming for Chinese pianist Hong Xu, who opened the 2019-2020 season series of concerts for the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation.

Xu, who won the bronze medal at the 2001 Bachauer competitions at the age of 17 in Salt Lake City, returned last week with a world class performance of gorgeous, intimate works from the solo piano literature — all written by composers at an age younger than the soloist is today. Xu, whose career magnified rapidly on the international stage after his U.S. premiere as a teen, also is a deeply respected teacher in his native China, where he is shepherding new generations of pianists at the Wuhan Conservatory.

His program of Mozart, Liszt and Scriabin focused on extraordinary displays of control, as he finessed absolutely heart-touching renditions of the works. Xu is fascinating to watch, with flourishes, gestures and facial communication that signal his absolute passion for the music he selected. One might connect such displays to produce pyrotechnics of blistering speed and complex passages. However, Xu transferred an incredible energy that generated delicate luminescence in his playing, with profound emotion.

While both Mozart piano pieces presented — Sonata in C Major, K. 309 and Sonata in F Major, K. 332 – rank comparatively in the middle in degree of difficulty, they demand precision in the face of Mozart’s utterly transparent writing. The most important indicator in both instances was the slow movement. In the earlier work, the C Major Sonata, which Mozart composed at the age of 21, featured the Andante un poco adagio, the paragon of youthful sweetness, which Xu accomplished with convincing exquisiteness. Likewise, Xu refreshed the audience’s memory about the composer’s capacity for elegant melody, such as the typical Mozartean motif at the opening, featuring the descending fourth and the ascending sixth.

Hong Xu

Meanwhile, the F Major Sonata, written when Mozart was in his mid-twenties, highlights the numerous ways the composer liberated the sonata form from its classic structure. Xu’s interpretation of the Adagio movement, which is in B-flat major, exuded every bit of ultra-fine ornamentation.

Liszt, perhaps the greatest purveyor of solo pyrotechnics for the instrument, also produced understated masterpieces that deserve far more visibility on the recital stage. Xu gave two exceptional examples, the first being the Les Cloches de Genève: Nocturne (The Bells of Geneva). The Hungarian composer wrote this in his middle twenties and included it in the Années de Pélerinage’s first book, a sort of musical diary he kept about his experiences in Switzerland.

Liszt dedicated this work to his daughter Blandine, her mother being his mistress at the time, Countess Marie d’Agoult. Xu masterly paints the sonic Romantic landscape, opening with some of the most uncharacteristically quiet moments associated with Liszt. Xu cultivates the music’s full organic nature, translating the distant sound of bells into their full sonorous majesty and then allowing the apex to gradually fade into the distance at the end.

Xu sustains the contemplative mood as he segues into Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude), written a decade later than the preceding work. He creates a cathedral of sound that glistens with subdued ecstasy and transits through a harmonic scheme that emphasizes Liszt’s legitimate gifts as a composer. Xu elicits the full harmonic cascade, as each section descends by a third from F-sharp and eventually to B-flat. This is a work that presages the harmonic language of late Romantic greats such as Mahler and even the Impressionistic golden threads of Debussy.

Xu closed out the harmonic journey with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp Minor, op. 23, which the Russian composer completed at the age of 27. Scriabin wrote 10 piano sonatas and while this one recalls in part how Liszt used thematic material in similar works, it also heralds the new harmonic languages around the corner at the beginning of the 20th century, including serialism. Again, the highlight of Xu’s performance here was the slow movement, with the theme anchored in the keyboard’s middle register, filled out with intricate lines in the upper range and a strong descending line in bass territory. Xu melded the textures akin to an expert metalwork artisan.

For an encore, he selected Debussy’s Clair de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque, the definitive night cap to a jewel of a recital.

The next concert (Nov. 8) will feature Alexander Korsantia, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia and professor at the New England Conservatory, who will perform works by Chopin and Schubert.

For more information about the season and next summer’s competitions, see the Bachauer web site.

NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: LIGETI AND BRAHMS

It seems that no adventure is too formidable for NOVA Chamber Music Series  concerts. In an all-string program,  the Fry Street Quartet, also taking the role as NOVA’s music directors, and guest soloist Brant Bayless treated audiences to a extraordinarily gutsy and illustrious program of chamber music by György Ligeti and Johannes Brahms.

And, the achievement badge for this challenging program level was unlocked. Some concerts might see one Ligeti work but, in this instance, there were two, most notably the Solo Viola Sonata. As explained in a preview at The Utah Review, this solo piece is considered by many violists as the most difficult of the repertoire. It occupies a unique spot in the upper elite echelon of works that Bayless, Utah Symphony principal violist, once described as “too scary” to perform.

Composed when Ligeti was in his early seventies, the Solo Viola Sonata is structurally a contemporary form of the great Bach solo masterpieces. Each of the six movements exposes the soloist and the audience to a daring venture exploring the viola’s capabilities. Bayless set the bar impressively with the first movement, composed of microtones and characteristic Ligeti effects conveying the inflections of Romanian and Gypsy musics that are part of the composer’s cultural DNA. The demands are stratospheric, literally and metaphorically, which Bayless addressed with solid conviction. For Western ears, the first movement introduces a different musical language, its elements coming through clearly in the clear Libby Gardner Hall acoustics.

Brant Bayless

As communicated by his intense concentration on stage, Bayless achieves the critical effects in each movement, from the dense double stops to sudden swings in dynamics carrying over one bar to another, along with accented notes in ever-shifting patterns. This Ligeti piece might be presented by a university graduate student at a master’s degree recital. However, few performers dare to present it at a public concert but, again, NOVA’s musicians seem eternally fearless.

For edifying comparison, the Fry Street Quartet (Robert Waters, Rebecca McFaul, violin; Bradley Ottesen, viola, and Anne Francis Bayless, cello) followed Bayless’ excellent performance with a stupendous reading of Ligeti’s First String Quartet, composed 40 years earlier in the 1950s and with the subtitle, Métamorphoses nocturnes. Hungarian composers definitely are a strong suit for this quartet. The repertoire includes the widely praised readings of Béla Bartók’s string quartets.

This particular Ligeti work, with its definite homage to Bartók, is not too far from the degree of fiendish difficulty of the Solo Viola Sonata. Part of the work’s challenge is to liberate the playing from a formalistic classical style. Ligeti marks the score frequently with indications of theatrical, painful and sweet expressions. The Hungarian/Magyar musical character is as ferocious, dramatic, sarcastic, volcanic and sensuous as the culture of its people. And, Fry Street brought all of these elements to its performance.

Fry Street Quartet. Photo Credit. Andrew McAllister.

Bayless, also the husband of Fry Street’s cellist, joined the quartet for the closing work, Brahms’ String Quintet in G major, op. 111. With the exception of a few minor pieces, this was Brahm’s last work, completed six years before his death in 1897. For a composer’s last work, this quintet is brewed with bucolic revelry and it shimmers in muscular energy. True to form, the ensemble delivered the full musical punch without exaggerating the eloquent natural gifts of Brahm’s late-period writing.

NOVA has two concerts scheduled for November. The first (Nov. 3) is part of the Gallery Series at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, featuring the Fry Street Quartet is music of Mozart and Britten. A world premiere commission for woodwinds, by Steven Roens, who heads the music composition program at The University of Utah, will highlight Contrasts (Nov. 17). As noted in his biography, “Roens’s writing is freely atonal, rhythmically fluid, and spare. It has been called by one critic, neo-Webernian.” This is Roens’ second NOVA commission. As for the concert’s title, Bartók’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano will be performed, a 1938 work commissioned by Benny Goodman which features Hungarian and Romanian dance melodies. 

For more information about concerts and tickets, see the NOVA website.

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