Keyboard Innovations | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Music » Music Sidebar

Keyboard Innovations


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe



Three Arts Club

June 10

For centuries the piano has reigned supreme among musical instruments. It's not hard to see why. As far back as the 1500s its older relatives the virginal and the harpsichord were almost as permanently fixed pieces of furniture as the family wardrobe in the households of Europe. They implied solidity and respectability; they were fit to be played even by the hands of aristocratic ladies. Meanwhile, in the church the organ was taking up a lofty position.

The first-generation piano, an amalgam of dulcimer and clavichord features with a four-octave range, was introduced around the time of Bach. It quickly became an all-purpose instrument and an indispensable tool for composers. Its versatility also helped usher in the age of the virtuosos. Mozart first gained fame as a keyboard prodigy. Concertgoers paid dearly to see Beethoven and Brahms pounding heroically on the most modern (and sturdy) pianos. Liszt became the first performing superstar, and Chopin even managed to make revolutionary fervor fashionable among the cultural elite. For the growing bourgeoisie in the 19th century, as Theodor Adorno pointed out, the piano was a status symbol.

But sometime in the 1940s the piano repertoire--arguably the richest for any solo instrument--stopped growing. Bartok and Stravinsky were the last major contributors, and the great pianists of this century--Horowitz, Rubinstein, Casadesus, Schnabel--became for the most part interpreters of past glories. Presumably their fans wouldn't sit through the atonal music served up by postwar composers, nor could they be expected to understand why modern composers like John Cage went out of their way to coax new sounds from the piano. As a consequence, present-day pianists bent on building a lucrative career shy away from 20th-century compositions, though they occasionally include a piece or two for the critics.

This attitude puts composers writing music for the solo piano in a quandary. Not only do they have to weigh the "difficulty" of their music against an audience's level of sophistication--though Luigi Nono is no more difficult than Schubert--but they also have to rely on accomplished pianists who are willing to take the risk of playing the new. Unfortunately, only a handful of new-music champions are up to the challenge, including Maurizio Pollini, Ursula Oppens, and Peter Serkin--though they're also generalists. Then there's Kathleen Supove, a relatively obscure Boston-based pianist who performs only the music of our time.

Earlier this month Supove premiered a number of recent works by core members of the Chicago Composers' Consortium. Basically a support group, the CCC has been showcasing composers under 40, most of whom are affiliated with Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, since it was founded in 1988.

First on the program was Rapture by Pieter Snapper, who trained at Berkeley and the U. of C. Described by him as reflecting "an obsession with the dialectical expression and repression of emotion," the piece creates tension through mood swings that go from serenity to fury and from calm resignation to defiant outburst--all nicely and patiently contrasted by Supove. Suspense is added through the unexpected recurrence of the opening two-note exclamation. The craftsmanship of this five-minute work is fairly impressive.

River of Dreams by Kathleen Ginther, a PhD candidate at Northwestern, is also a modest exercise, focusing on rhythm, register, and harmony. The short, not easy piece proceeds like ripples in a pond, with the pianist's hands slowly working their way from the piano's middle section outward, its cascading rhythm fluid yet unpredictable. One has the sense of listening to a composer working out a knotty compositional problem at the piano. Supove tackled the piece with lots of energy, working up to a frenzy by the end.

Apparitions by the U. of C.'s Elizabeth Start cleverly extracts fresh sonorities from the piano through the use of harmonics and sympathetic vibrations. Its cries and whispers, often off pitch, are supposed to conjure up the ghostly presences Start says in a program note that she felt while she was composing. But the piece was as ephemeral as the ghosts must have been; it was the least impressive work on the program.

Cycles by Gustavo Leone, a Northwestern alum, also presents an intriguing solution to a technical challenge. Cast in an arch form, this theme and seven variations first cranks up to top speed by the fourth movement, then winds down gradually--that's the method in the chaos. For long stretches in the piece clusters of notes flail about. Leone's achievement is in skillfully hiding the structure yet letting it carry the agitated sounds to ultimate silence--almost like an ocean current sweeping forward while the surface wavelets are tossed in all directions. Supove's playing was astute, outlining the contours of the cycles without diminishing the seeming randomness.

The two most ambitious works of the evening, at least in length and design, were Lawrence Axelrod's Three Etudes and Michael Pisaro's 4 Scenes. In a program note Axelrod explains that his etudes were conceived in the vein of Chopin and Debussy. "Rain," the first etude, works like an impressionist collage. Amid the fast-moving murmurs is a soothing melody that spins round and round. In "Musiques Nocturnes" Axelrod guts the fourth movement of Bartok's suite Out of Doors and refurbishes it with his own notes. It's a brave move, but probably means something only to Bartok devotees. The music begins with low-key chordal repetitions that build up a mood of anticipation. Now and then the pianist (with the assistance of the page turner) plucks and taps the strings or knocks on the wood. Gradually the music begins to resemble a folk tune. But where Bartok used a Hungarian tune, Axelrod substitutes a melody from a chorale he wrote that has the naive charm of a nursery song. The last etude, which has the rollicking beat of a Scott Joplin number, is a brief compendium of spanned octaves--double, broken, opposing--and it ends in a startling flourish with a right-hand octave glissando. Supove handled the pyrotechnics with aplomb, turning the piece into a bravura showcase.

According to its composer, Northwestern professor Pisaro, 4 Scenes is based on a Donald Hall poem that "juggles a collection of divergent and often contradictory poetic voices, yet creates an ineffable sense of wholeness." Pisaro says he tried to replicate this feat through music by "using one movement as a harmonic blueprint for the other three." His method is similar to Leone's--the harmonic strategy stays steady even though the surface mutates wildly. The first section, "Prophecy," consists of layers of notes, thick and thin. "History," which follows, is a slow-flowing stream of dense clusters of bass notes. "Eclogue" sounds like a laid-back Keith Jarrett riff with hints of a majestic chorale. And "Pastoral" is a new-age roundelay, in which chordal phrases wax and wane lullingly. Supove's playing was seductive and polished. She almost made me believe that the contemporary piano repertoire is alive and well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc Bryan-Brown.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Give $35/month →  
  Give $10/month →  
  Give  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Add a comment