Sunday, July 17, 2016

Calling all hands to the keyboard at Chamber Music Northwest

Yevgeny Yontov, Gilles Vonsattel, Melvin Chen, and Hilda Huang | Photo by Jonathan Lange
During Medieval times scholars pondered how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the Chamber Music Northwest concert on Tuesday evening (July 12) made me wonder how many pianists can play difficult music while sharing the same keyboard. That’s because the program featured two pieces with three pianists traversing one Steinway grand – a total of 30 digits on 88 keys. The performances were a ballet of sorts on the ivories, and they fit perfectly with two other works for two pianists seated at two grands. But at the end of the evening, concertgoers were treated to an encore that one-upped the stakes with four pianists at one keyboard – a spectacular way to cap things off.

The first of the two pieces for a threesome was an arrangement by Carl Czerny of the Overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Czerny wrote the piece in an era when parlor piano music was all the rage and people wanted to hear great pieces like Mozart’s in their own homes. Pianists Melvin Chen, Hilda Huang, and Yevgeny Yontov gave Cerny’s arrangement an outstanding interpretation with Chen maneuvering his fingers primarily in the bass register, Huang in the middle, and Yontov on treble. If only there had been a camera on the keyboard with projection to a large screen, then all of the audience would have enjoyed witty finger-ballet even more.

The second number for finger-ballet-trio took the audience in a less eloquent, yet equally fun direction. That’s because the same ensemble (with Yontov on bass, Huang in the middle, and Chen on treble) performed Alfred Schnittke’s “Homage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich,” which had a rough and tumble bass line, rhythmic drive, and dissonant, crunchy chords that obliterated everything in periodic joyful outbursts. The performers looked like they were having a blast playing the piece, even though some in the audience were scratching their heads.
Gilles Vonsattel and Hilda Huang | Photo by Jonathan Lange

In the duo piano/pianists part of the program, Huang and Gilles Vonsattel gave an exquisite performance of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448). Their springy, light touch matched the sentiment of the first movement (“Allegro con spirit”) to perfection. For in the second (“Andante”), they elicited an impeccably balanced, cantabile sound and played the third (“Allegro molto”) with a spry and refined spirit.

Yontov and Vonsattel teamed up to deliver a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s Suite for Two Pianos No. 2 in C Major (Op. 17). Besides a con brio opening with some bombastic chords and lots of propulsive energy, the duo alternated back and forth between a quick waltz and a sumptuous melody plus a couple of transitions that included tricky pauses. The “Tarantella: Presto” of the final movement seemed to be a real knuckle-buster that was punctuated with sudden accents – all of which was handled with aplomb by Yontov and Vonsattel.

All four pianists came on stage, rearranged the piano benches and played Albert Lavignac’s “Galop Marche,” one of the best party pieces ever written for one piano, eight hands. Yep, 40 fingers on 88 keys. They tempo was brisk, and the piece sparkled with humor and fun. After the concert, I found a version of this piece on YouTube that features 12 pianists on one keyboard at a concert in Alexandria, Egypt. In that version, four of the pianists are on the floor below the keyboard and reaching up and the others crowd around. So, now I am expecting Chamber Music Northwest to bring this version of the piece to Portland some day in the future.

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