Concert Review

Epic Music, Powerhouse Pianism

By Sarah Cahill                       

If Thomas Schultz had advertised his concert on Friday
                           night as "protest music," he would have packed Old First
                           Church to the rafters. And he wouldn't have been
                           deceiving anyone. Activists, radicals, and any
                           politically-minded person would have found satisfaction
                           and even a cathartic release in Schultz's ingenious
                           program combining Yuji Takahashi's Kwangju, May
                           1980, about the horrific oppression of an uprising in the
                           South Korean city, and Frederic Rzewski's The People
                           United Will Never Be Defeated, 36 variations on a
                           Chilean anthem from the Allende regime.

                           But Schultz just isn't the kind of pianist who markets the
                           music or himself. Like many pianists in the Bay Area, he
                           often attracts larger audiences in New York or Seoul or
                           Berlin than he does in his own home town.

                           More than an hour in length and calling on every trick of
                           the trade, Rzewski's People United is a tremendous
                           undertaking. Though relatively new in the repertoire, the
                           piece has already attained the status of a 20th-century
                           masterpiece and has been recorded by a legion of
                           heavy hitters including Ursula Oppens (its dedicatee),
                           Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Drury, and Rzewski
                           himself. Like the Diabelli Variations which inspired it, it
                           is a veritable compendium of piano technique, stretching
                           to the far reaches of experimentation while echoing
                           centuries of great keyboard literature, and its performer
                           needs exceptional power and stamina to pull it off.

Strength and sensibility

                           Schultz has both in abundance. Even when the variations
                           strayed into impossibly wild virtuosic territory, he never
                           faltered or showed signs of fatigue, but kept revealing
                           aspects of the music which other pianists miss. He
                           unified the entire set by continually conjuring up the
                           populist spirit of the original song, "El Pueblo Unido
                           Jamás Será Vencido," which underlies each variation,
                           no matter how obliquely. Even while maneuvering
                           incandescent scales, booming octaves, jazz riffs,
                           Lisztian pyrotechnics, blistering repeated notes,
                           acrobatic leaps, and cuticle-shredding glissandi, Schultz
                           always gave a sense of the piece's rigorous structure
                           (six groups of six variations each) through masterful
                           pacing. In the last few pages, the triumphant return of the
                           theme, he built the tension until its final moments, which
                           sprang forth with a burst of energy. Schultz's extensive
                           work with classical composers was very much in
                           evidence here: if he were less capable with Beethoven
                           or Liszt, his Rzewski wouldn't have been so brilliant.

                           Like Rzewski, Yuji Takahashi incorporates folk songs
                           within a style which is generally tonal and accessible.
                           Kwangju, May 1980 commemorates the uprising of
                           students and townspeople of that South Korean city
                           against General Chun Doo-hwan and his army.
                           Augmenting the music is a series of slides from the
                           Japanese artist Tomiyama Taeko, powerful images of
                           protestors with raised arms, soldiers rendered as skulls
                           in helmets, people weeping over their dead loved ones,
                           seas of faces. Schultz captured the plaintive quality of
                           Takahashi's score, and brought out its delicate
                           articulations, while sustaining the dissonant chorale-like
                           theme in the bass which proceeds inexorably, despite
                           interruptions, like a crowd intent on its purpose.

Ephemeral and evanescent

                           Last year Schultz commissioned another piece from
                           Takahashi, and he performed that as well. For Thomas
                           Schultz (Piano 3) is basically seven pages of musical
                           fragments; some are chords, detached from one
                           another, some are series of notes without bar lines. On
                           each page Takahashi has written a few lines of
                           instructions, some more helpful than others. Below a few
                           intricate lines in which the right and left hands obviously
                           don't line up at all, he's written "Sightread slowly then
                           repeat many times. Don't mind the wrong notes but
                           rather follow mistakes."

                           A piece like this could sound patched together, but
                           Schultz turned it into a cohesive whole. It begins with
                           delicate rapid irregular figures in the high register, like
                           random water droplets. The hands cross in various
                           figurations then drift down to the bass for vaporous
                           ghosts of melody. Schultz's dynamic control was
                           particularly impressive. Sparse and improvisatory, the
                           piece is quiet throughout, yet Schultz brought such focus
                           to it that it took on an intimate intensity. It ended with one
                           passage repeated over and over, ranging from the top to
                           the bottom of the keyboard, each time softer until notes
                           drop out along the way, and the hands simply travel
                           downward, moving soundlessly.

                           One rarely encounters a pianist who can tackle new
                           music and experimental notation while enriching it with a
                           firm grounding in the classical literature.
                           (Sarah Cahill is a pianist and music critic; her website is
Originally written for and published by
San Francisco Classical Voice

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