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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Concert Review: In Praise of the Creator

Conor Hanick and the Met Museum celebrate Pierre Boulez.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The pianist Conor Hanick. Photo by Jonathan Waiter
There is no living figure in the music of the second half of the 20th century than Pierre Boulez. On Thursday afternoon, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offered Pierre Boulez: A 90th Birthday Celebration  with a triptych of works played by pianist Conor Hanick. This concert, featuring Mr. Boulez' first published works alongside 21st century compositions showed that the French composer's influence on the development of piano repertory remains strong into the modern age.



For this recital, an avant-garde entry in the museum's regular series of free daytime concerts Gallery 909 was an apt choice. Located on the south end of this massive building, this room's vertical windows looked out on a misty, foggy day in Central Park. Providing bright contrast were the paintings of Hans Hofmann, abstract expressionist rectangles of clashing, bright colors, evocative of the bold musical colors of this program.

The concert, which occasionally featured curious tourists wandering through the hushed and expectant audience, opened with Matthias Pintscher's 2004 piece On a Clear Day. This is complex, attacking music, dense and contrapuntal and sometimes spacious and broad. Mr. Pintscher's composition explores the piano as a resonating instrument, juxtaposing extreme highs and lows of the keyboard with heavy use of the sustain pedal. This created an echoing effect between the tones, and generated "spectral" microtonal sounds formed from the notes when played together.

The tone clusters appeared in ghostly, spidery clusters, accented with broad strokes of the left hand and a sense of forward motion. At moments, Mr. Hanick stood from his bench. He plucked, brushed and strummed the strings inside the piano's sound-box, drawing unusual sonorities. A final coda came after a long silence, after the audience had already applauded,

One of the key pianistic techniques of the 20th century is the prepared piano, where objects are inserted on top of or between the strings in an attempt to change the sonority of the instrument. For David Fulmer's 2013 piece Whose Fingers Brush the Sky, rubber strips were inserted atop the bass strings of the piano, creating a muffled thumpa-thumpa not unlike an electric bass. The treble strings were adjusted too, with a small screw creating new sonorities when the highest keys on the piano were pressed.

Mr. Hanick played this complex piece with a fluid technique, generating rotating, rhythmic sounds that reminded one of a Javanese gamelan. Plucked and strummed notes inside the piano generated new sounds, helped by the preparation and the mutes.  In fact, Mr. Hanick forgot to remove the mutes at the end of the piece, resulting in these e new sonorities carried over to the first of the Douze Notations. With a word of apology, Mr. Hanick stood, and removed the foreign objects and re-started the performance of the Boulez.

This is a cycle of twelve short pieces, composed by Boulez at the age of 20 and currently being revised and orchestrated by the nonagenarian composer. These are characterful miniatures, looking back on Boulez' chief influences (Debussy, Stravinsky, Messiaen) and forward to the rule-breaking that would form the core of his contribution to Western art. Each of these little jewels hung bright and suspended like museum pieces whether adorned with glittering high notes or roaring chords and clusters. Mr. Hanick played them with power, imagination and authority. Their composer could not ask for a better birthday present.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.