In Sejoon Park’s onstage remarks at the beginning of his Astral Artists recital, the pianist noted that young performers are under pressure to be innovative these days. For this event, he defied the zeitgeist, picking some of his personal favorites and demonstrating the advantages of familiarity and affection. The program’s only novelty was the premiere of the piece he commissioned under Astral’s micro-commissioning program.
Tenderness and thunder
Park opened with a piece that challenges the pianist’s ability to paint pictures and create moods. Rachmaninoff had definite images in mind when he created his first group of Études-Tableaux, but didn’t say what they were. He felt his listeners should paint whatever mental pictures the music suggested. Park got the group off to a big start in the first étude, then moved on to moods like the singing tenderness in the second and the whirl of action in the fourth.
In the third item on the program, Scriabin’s fifth piano sonata, Park added another element to his emotional virtuosity and proved he could thunder with his left hand while singing with his right.
The only important flaw in the recital was the size of the thunder. Some of the big climaxes would have been more effective if Park had dropped the volume by a few decibels. Benjamin Franklin Hall is a moderately sized performance space, seating around 500 people: pianists don’t have to hit the keys with the kind of force they use when they’re trying to reach the top seats at the Kimmel Center.
Astral Artists selects promising young musicians and offers them performance opportunities and help with their careers. The company’s micro-commission program gives Astral musicians a small grant to commission a short piece for their instrument. Park bestowed his grant on Baltimore composer Joel Puckett, who responded with a charmer entitled “A Lullaby With My Daughter.”
Puckett’s title is a literal description of his piece. He started with a short lullaby he plays for his daughter and developed the idea with his daughter sitting beside him at the piano, telling him what should come next. The piece’s underlying structure — the logical principle that holds it together—is a child’s fancies. It’s definitely a lullaby, but it’s never sweet or sentimental and ended right about the time I began to fear it might run too long.
Park opened with a piece by a composer who believed his listeners should supply their own pictures. He ended with one of the most famous scene painters in the musical repertory — Mussorgsky’s original piano version of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Ravel’s orchestra version of “Pictures” has become one of the most popular items in the orchestra repertory. Without Ravel’s orchestration — stripped to its essentials and in the hands of a skilled, understanding pianist — it’s still an effective work.
Melodies and harmonies create the pictures without the assistance of tone colors, the same way a drawing creates a picture without the help of visual colors. The piano version is actually more compelling in some ways, since the listener has to do more of the work: Gnomes chattered, the catacombs felt threatening, you could feel the oxen’s muscles surging as they pulled the ox cart. Park couldn’t ring bells at the peak of the climactic “Great Gate of Kiev” sequence, but he compensated for that by finishing the afternoon with rivers of notes flowing from his fingers.