Monday, October 15, 2012

What Makes It Great? (Could it be the pianist?)

Yesterday, my husband and I went to a performance by the music appreciation guru Rob Kapilow. I've heard him on the radio (and if you're a public radio listener, you probably have, too) and have found his comments solid and insightful, but the main reason I wanted to attend this particular show was because the topic was Chopin's piano music and the performer was my friend Brian Ganz.

Here's the blurb from the Washington Performing Arts Society website:
In his acclaimed What Makes It Great? series, former NPR music commentator Rob Kapilow "gets audiences in tune with classical music at a deeper level than many of them thought possible"(Los Angeles Times). In a three-part format, Kapilow unravels and explores a great musical masterpiece with the audience. Next, the piece is performed in its entirety followed by a Q & A with the audience and performers.

"Not since Leonard Bernstein has classical music had a combination salesman-teacher as irresistible as Kapilow." ~ Kansas City Star

The performance at Baird Auditorium, in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, was sold out, and the place was packed, so we ended up sitting in the front row. I normally do not like doing this, but in this case, I enjoyed the more visceral experience of the piano's sonorities.

The pieces discussed and performed were two Mazurkas (Op. 7, No. 1, in B flat major, and Op. 17, No. 4, in A minor), a Nocturne (Op. 62, No. 1, in B major), and a Polonaise (Op. 53, in A flat major). A Steinway concert grand and a Yamaha digital piano were set up on the stage. Brian sat at the Steinway and Kapilow sat at the Yamaha, and as Kapilow discussed the pieces, he demonstrated a bit and Brian demonstrated a bit. After each discussion, Kapilow left the stage and Brian performed the work in full.

As to what makes this music great, I'm probably too close to the material to get a sense of whether this was conveyed in such a presentation. My husband, as a nonmusician, said he appreciated the way Kapilow took each piece apart, discussing first each form (what a mazurka is, etc.) and then how Chopin used harmony and melodic structure to create his effects. Kapilow certainly touched on all the important points: Chopin's ability to take small salon forms and embue them with color, interest, and imagination; his individualism (eschewing the large forms, like symphonies and operas, to focus on his strengths as a composer); and the technical challenges of playing this music. But Brian's wonderful performances were additionally persuasive.

As I mentioned earlier this year, Brian is engaged in a multiyear series of concerts, the Chopin Project, in which he is performing all of Chopin's music, so he has been immersed in this music, and it shows. I can't remember hearing such beautifully clean, yet relaxed and powerful, versions of these pieces.

No comments: