Keys to the Future bills itself as "New York's only festival of contemporary solo piano music." The event is only in its second year, but it has already expanded to a three-day, six-pianist, 32-composer blowout. I made the second night (Wednesday), which featured pianists Tatjana Rankovich, Lora Tchekoratova, and festival founder Joseph Rubenstein.
Tatjana was first up, opening with a 1997 work by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, called simply Music for Piano. (In case you were wondering, Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan.) It begins with a simple ascending left-hand line pitted against florid right-hand arabesques, with a light buzz supplied by a beaded necklace placed over the strings -- an effect intended to evoke a tar. At several points, the meditative mood is disrupted by an explosion of low-register rumbling, only to return to the original free-floating melodic figurations During these recapitulations, I found myself focusing more on the sound of the necklace buzzing against the strings than on the notes themselves -- it sounded separate and disembodied, almost like a running commentary on the piece.
Next were four selections from Philippe Hersant's piano cycle Éphémeres, a collection of short haiku-inspired pieces composed between 1999 and 2003. Miniatures like these are tricky to pull off, but all of the included pieces were distinctive and satisfying: a tentative folklike melody played in parallel; vertiginous flurries against left-hand Morse-code punctuations; an intentionally muddy sprint through the low register, ending abruptly; and, my favorite of the four, a simple, open-sounding piece reminiscent of Keith Jarrett channeling Copland.
Luciano Berio's Brin (1990) is another miniature, beginning with various strands of vaporous lines that seem to blow by aimlessly, but eventually coalesce into a single repeated chord. Berio's music doesn't normally do much for me, but this piece is actually quite powerful and affecting -- perhaps the dosage was right.
Tatjana closed with Joseph Fennimore's Fifth Romance (1984), which draws heavily from the Great American Songbook -- I heard somewhat abstracted allusions to "Tea For Two," "Lover Man," and "Body and Soul," among others. Fennimore skillfully weaves Bill Evans-derived extended harmonies in with more purely expressionistic sonorities, but the the result was more like an ultra-highbrow showtunes medley than a cohesive piece in its own right. Still, Tatjana Rankovich was a model of understated expressiveness throughout.
Batting second was Lora Tchekoratova, who kicked off her set with a jaw-droppingly virtuosic reading of Lowell Liebermann's Nocturne No. 5 (1996), which opens with simple arpeggios and an unadorned melody, before unleashing, without warning, a torrent of fearsomely difficult chromatic commentary, which takes over the right hand and threatens to engulf the piece. But then the storm passes and the canonic melody returns to lead us into a wistful ending. This is a staight-up, old-fashioned Lisztian tour-de-force, with the music sometimes taking a back seat to Tchekoratova's formidable pianism.
The Downtown contingent was represented by the premiere of Phil Kline's Mambo No. 1, the most rhythmically muscular work of the night. The groove does not actually resemble a mambo of any kind (Phil was instead riffing on the Voodoo priestess), but it was the first piece of the night to include a regular pulse. The music is dense, almost claustrophobic, but a quarter-note bass line soon arrives to keep us grounded. At times, the music would grind to a sudden stop, only to shoot off into a new and unexpected direction. After quite a lot of introspective music, I was glad for the Kline's in-your-face approach here, and it was fun to see Lora bobbing her head in time with the complex but on-the-grid rhythms. But it also seemed like Kline had stuffed too many ideas into too small a frame.
With Toru Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II (1992), we return to the wispy, introspective post-Debussy works that dominated the evening. Dedicated to Messiaen, the vibe here is mystical, reverent, occasionally mysterious but ultimately uplifting. This is a beautiful and well-crafted work, played with tremendous focus and patience, but at this point I began to wonder if the program wasn't a bit top-heavy with this kind of piece.
Next, Keys to the Future head honcho Joseph Rubenstein took the stage, with... Arvo Pärt's quiet, meditative, introspective Für Alina (1976). So yeah, at first, I'm thinking, "Okay, I know pianists love to play the navel-gazing tunes, but this is really getting to be much too much..." -- but Joseph quickly won me over. His performance of Pärt's obsessive refraction of a folk-like melody was completely transfixing. The work is as much about the silence between the phrases as the phrases themselves, and while the silence is never perfect at Greenwich House, if anything, the sound of the falling rain and passing cars outside made the gaps even more heart-rending.
I hadn't actually heard any of Christopher O'Reilly's solo piano arrangements of Radiohead songs before Wednesday night. But if you're going to do that sort of thing, "Exit Music for a Film" is perhaps the most obvious choice, what with all those moody oblique-motion progressions lifted straight from Chopin. O'Reilly strips away the original's grim, plodding inevitability in favor of a loosely flowing rhapsodic treatment -- and while the adaptation works well enough in strictly musical terms, I also can't help but feel that returning the song to its roots in the Romantic piano literature is one of the least interesting things you could do with it.
However, it did make for an intriguing transition into the first of Bruce Stark's Five Preludes (2003), which opened in a similar tonality, with a very Radiohead-sounding 7/8 figure. This was followed by a halting, tentative ballad-like piece, again with harmonies painted from the Bill Evans palette. The third prelude generated some momentum with a bright, mid-register ostinato, leading into the unabashed pop lyricism of the fourth prelude. The melodic lines were, at times, undermined by deliberately skewed harmonies, but such doubts were ultimately vanquished by the sincere, unadorned ending. The last of the five was a brisk chase-piece inflected with blue notes -- while I would have preferred to hear a more assertive approach, with stronger, fiercer accents, Rubinstein clearly has virtuosity to burn. I enjoyed his take on this music, even if his playing in the final prelude was a bit too refined for my taste.
Speaking of "refined," though, I found it a bit incongruous that, for a festival of contemporary solo piano music, the presentation was strictly old-school. The pianists all wore formal dress and didn't address the audience. Some of the composers were on hand, but they didn't speak, either. The sequencing of the program seemed to cater to the needs of the performers, without apparent consideration to the flow of the concert as a whole. Many in the audience spent the evening with their heads dutifully buried in the program, instead of actively watching and listening. The night had all the trappings of a recital of 19th-century warhorses, and while the music was, for the most part, appealing and invigorating, next year I'd like to see a presentation to match.
Tickets to this event were provided by the concert promoter.