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Frederick Moyer

at Ascension Church, April 28

From its origins in the late 18th century as the gravicembalo col piano e forte ("harpsichord with loud and soft"), the piano's ability to play an astonishing number of notes at a wide dynamic range has made it music's workhorse. For generations it was also the home entertainment center for middle- and upper-class families; acquaintance, however rudimentary, with the keyboard was considered an essential element of education.

The piano was elbowed out of its pivotal position in the family's affections with the advent of the broadcast media; radio wounded it, television provided the coup de grace. Today fewer and fewer children are dragged away from their Nintendos to put in a daily half hour of practice or to learn the meaning of stage fright in their teachers' living-room recitals. Sales of pianos have been declining for decades, which is why the recent buyout of the Steinway company for over $1 million amazed industry observers, who found the price much too high given the low sales and the large supplies of good used pianos--they don't, after all, wear out. For those who still insist on making their own music, various electronic devices deriving from the "toaster organ" of the 60s and 70s provide everything from a bass line to drums to chord changes to a trumpet descant to the silky sounds of 101 Strings. Any dolt can pick out a melody line, at least until the novelty of the toy wears off.

Yet paradoxically we have more outstanding pianists vying for our attention than ever. Technical perfection is no longer particularly rare, and there's no shortage of flash in the herds of talented young pianists who emerge from musical competitions annually, each hoping to become the next Van Cliburn or Andre Watts, get a fat recording contract, and play on all the biggest piano series and with all the best orchestras. But true soul remains much more elusive.

The arts being a human endeavor, mere talent and hard work do not always spell success, which may depend more on hype and professional relationships. So it should come as no surprise that one of the most exciting piano recitals of the year was not by a big-name artist in a high-profile venue.

I went to hear pianist Frederick Moyer primarily because I was interested in hearing his urtext version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I came away amazed by both his technical mastery and his ability to bare his soul in his music. The recital was one of those rare events where we're reminded what music making ought to be--a concert in which musicianship, scholarship, and honest performance were memorably combined.

Moyer is not a nobody. He's appeared with many orchestras in this country and elsewhere, though most of them are not first-tier ensembles. Still, he's far from being a household name.

Programs in the "Concerts Under the Dome" series at Ascension Church in Oak Park offer as appetizers preconcert lectures. The slender, bearded Moyer spoke on European (read German) influences on Russian composition, played three brief examples, and showed slides of the surviving works of art in the exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky.

That exhibition was a memorial retrospective of the paintings and theatrical and architectural sketches of the composer's friend Victor Hartmann. Two of the pictures were on loan from Mussorgsky's own collection, and Moyer attributed the jaunty spirit of the promenade immediately after the section named for them ("Samuel Goldenberg and Shmuyle") to pride of ownership. The notoriously dilatory (and sodden) Mussorgsky found inspiration in the pictures, and finished this piano work in just under three weeks, though it wasn't performed until several years after his death. It's most familiar to us in the orchestration by Ravel (others later tried their own ideas of the proper orchestral colors), but piano renditions have never completely gone out of fashion.

Instead of accepting the established piano versions, Moyer obtained a photocopy of the original manuscript whited out the numerous things Mussorgsky had crossed out (Mussorgsky was not a neatnik), and played exactly what the composer had written instead of what various editors, mindful of Mussorgsky's lack of training in composition, thought he must have intended. The results are not startlingly different--an octave jump here, a different transition there--but they do add up to a more Russian-sounding whole. It's more angular, like the original version of Boris Godunov.

Moyer paired this work with the Ten Preludes of Rachmaninoff, who took heat in his own time for being too Russian and nationalistic in his music. Moyer also offered a bonus at the start of the concert in the form of Rachmaninoff's first big hit, his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, which made him a star when he was still a very young man. Unlike many pianists, Moyer avoided the tendency to make it overblown.

Moyer's playing of these works was translucent, with a minimum of shtick and swooning. He avoided both the temptations to overintellectualize and to substitute false emotion for thinking, and he showed himself a master of voicing, weaving musical lace in the upper notes and generally keeping the lower notes clear. The cloudy acoustics of the church sometimes turned things mushy, particularly in the second of the Rachmaninoff preludes and the "Marketplace at Limoges" section of Pictures at an Exhibition. He moved along at a satisfactory clip--no drawing things out for effect here--though his tempi were just a little too efficient in the Prelude no. 8. He was also able to bring forth a phenomenal volume of sound at the very end, and the church bells in the "Great Gate of Kiev" pealed forth in a manner seldom heard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/KyuSun Rhee.

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