Ned Rorem lives on in the music of two vastly different pianists


On Saturday, my plan used to be to hit two piano recitals: Víkingur Ólafsson acting a program framed by way of his 2021 album, “Mozart & Contemporaries,” on the Kennedy Heart’s Terrace Theater, and avant-garde icon Margaret Leng Tan acting a memorial tribute to composer George Crumb on the Library of Congress.

I’d meant to move solo, however I finished up having corporate. All day lengthy, Ned Rorem and his songs have been placing round in my head.

Rorem, the prolific Pulitzer-winning American composer, pianist and diarist, died ultimate week at his Big apple condominium on the age of 99, and his loss of life hit me like a piano shoved from a 14th-story window.

Over the process his eight-decade profession, Rorem produced operas, concertos, choral works and symphonies, however he used to be perfect identified for his greater than 500 “artwork songs” — intricately composed musical settings of poems from Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and others. I ceaselessly bring to mind Rorem living in the similar aesthetic community as poet Frank O’Hara, from whose poems he continuously drew inspiration.

However, phrases apart, my favourite room of Rorem’s musical space used to be the only the place he saved his piano. Rorem’s quick solo piano sketches — many gathered in his “Piano Album I” (1978-2001) — are a number of the maximum expressive piano works of the ultimate century, regardless of maximum of them clocking in at slightly two mins.

On the piano, Rorem composed intimate handwritten notes to buddies (“For a Highest Good friend,” “Ah, Jim”), dedicatory doodles (“40 Chords for Mark on April First”) and birthday items (“A Little Waltz for Jim at Fifty-5”). A gorgeous efficiency of the suite given in 2014 by way of pianist Carolyn Enger on the Nationwide Gallery may also be discovered on YouTube.

Rorem’s mild, post-Romantic gestures have been all the time tempered by way of notes of existential angst — there used to be ever a pebble in Ned’s proverbial idler. However he additionally had an attractive manner of writing and rewriting words, letting his strains stroll the similar blocks and permitting other instances of day to light up new main points alongside their acquainted paths. They really feel like little errands, self-justifying excuses to go away the home of phrases.

However greater than the rest, they really feel like Ned. They nearly brim with Nedness. After I pay attention to Rorem, I’m reminded of the piano’s possible as an amplifier of the inner — a voice to articulate the unsayable.

Rorem didn’t ceaselessly write concerning the previous masters, who prefer to indicate his pen at his friends. However sooner than Rorem used to be 20, he’d discovered the piano catalogues of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and others. He gave the impression happy sufficient to go away them prior to now.

“Mozart and Bach are in their time, and they’re dated. All artwork dates from the instant it’s created. It dates smartly or it dates sick, however date it does,” Rorem wrote in a 1996 essay.

Rorem additionally gave the impression intent to view Mozart much less as a divine vessel and extra as a person: “Mozart’s ache is not any much less acute than the hatcheck lady’s,” he as soon as quipped. And on this, Rorem unearths a kindred spirit in Víkingur Ólafsson.

Ólafsson is a proficient pianist, however his different number one software is context. His 202o album, “Debussy – Rameau,” used to be a revelatory pairing of the 2 French composers — the previous born a century after the latter’s loss of life — tracing an uncanny trail between ostensibly far away sensibilities. On 2021’s “Mozart & Contemporaries,” Ólafsson grapples together with his personal anxieties vis a vis Mozart and his attendant mythology.

“When I used to be 8,” he remarked sooner than the recital, “it used to be Mozart that made me understand I wasn’t extraordinarily just right at enjoying piano.”

Saturday’s program (a duplicate of the album’s collection and choice) used to be targeted in this “mature Mozart” of the 1780s, by which Ólafsson detects “seeds of Romanticism” and a extra pronounced impulse towards “song for song’s sake.”

However the recital’s program additionally skillfully juxtaposed works from Mozart’s contemporaries, each shut in proximity and spirit (like C.P.E. Bach and Haydn) and extra afield (like Galuppi and Cimarosa).

Thus Mozart’s “Rondo in F Primary” discovered a convivial next-door neighbor in the more youthful Bach’s “Rondo for Keyboard in D Minor.” Haydn’s “Sonata for Piano in B Minor” offered a brisk and sprightly prelude to Mozart’s in a similar fashion Bach-patting “Kleine Gigue in G.” And the candy and somber first motion of Galuppi’s “Piano Sonata No. 34 in C Minor” presented a contemplative tonal crossing to Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 14.” The impact used to be a palpable freshening of subject material that one couldn’t believe listening to anew — even the “Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Primary” (a.ok.a. the “Sonata Facile”) that so tormented Ólafsson in his formative years confirmed off brighter colours than I’ve come to be expecting.

Ólafsson adopted his trail via this system with beautiful center of attention and sensitivity — his personal association for piano of the Adagio from Mozart’s “String Quartet No. 3 in G Minor” used to be particularly gorgeous. He’s a classy interpreter, keen on soft-topped notes and lengthy spells of heightened intimacy that arch his physique on the subject of the keyboard. His final “Ave verum corpus” — a limpid and lucid transcription for solo piano by way of Franz Liszt — used to be probably the greatest unmarried performances I’ve heard all 12 months.

He encored with the second one motion of Bach’s “Organ Sonata No. 4 in E minor” (from August Stradel’s transcription); and what can have been a devoted genuflection sounded intensely non-public, a flawless portrait drawn from reminiscence. Ned would possibly have grinned.

It’s honest to mention Rorem used to be no fan of George Crumb, whom he as soon as dubbed “the Vonnegut of song” and whose paintings he decried as “six results searching for a thoughts.”

Crumb’s aggressively nontraditional rankings — a vitrine of which have been displayed outdoor the Coolidge Auditorium on Saturday — and his unorthodox way to the software rubbed Rorem like metal wool on piano cord. Ned used to be irked to no finish that “the critics will have to fall for it — will have to have certainly created the trend,” a fickle flash of style he regarded as completely “dumbfounding.”

“Admittedly, Crumb has ‘reintroduced’ expressivity to avant-garde concert events, which comes as a quaintness to blasé ears,” he wrote, “however his song is not anything greater than expressivity — placing unqualified in air.”

Rorem wasn’t fallacious, precisely. Crumb’s expressivity — attained via amplification of the piano’s hidden resonances, alteration of its interior mechanics and different subject material interventions — rarely turns out “unqualified” when channeled throughout the physique of Margaret Leng Tan.

Tan is among the essential interpreters of the mid-century avant-garde, with a different affinity for the toy piano works of John Cage. Crumb devoted his landmark “Metamorphoses: E book I” to the pianist, who premiered it on the Nationwide Gallery of Artwork in 2017. And on Saturday, she took on “E book II,” Crumb’s ultimate paintings, finished in a while sooner than his loss of life in February of this 12 months.

Within the atypical rankings of George Crumb, the thoughts of a composer and the hand of a poet

Ahead of embarking at the Crumb and its 10 actions, each and every impressed by way of a distinct portray, Tan carried out two introductory works: “Arched Interiors II,” a piece for piano and “electro-acoustically remodeled sound” firstly composed for Tan in 1991 by way of longtime collaborator Christopher Hopkins, and “Converting Lady,” an unpublished paintings composed by way of Henry Cowell in 1954 for the trendy dancer Jean Erdman.

In each and every, Tan transforms the piano. The Hopkins had her looping a hank of horsehair (or used to be it fishing line?) across the strings of the piano and sawing it from side to side like a stretch of floss, inflicting guttural growls with saw-blade edges to upward push from the piano’s stomach. A prolong impact snatched and repeated cycles of gnarly textures via a couple of audio system. Scorching harmonics crammed the room as Tan slowly bowed the piano’s guts.

Switching to a 2d piano, Tan took a in a similar fashion tactile way to the Cowell, its seven actions evoking herbal auras throughout the muted thud of dampened strings, the gradual scrape of Tan’s thumbnail down their winding lengths, the rhythmic knock of a mallet care for in opposition to the piano’s picket bones. At one level she performed the piano like a harp, fingering descending chords at the keyboard however voicing them with a steel ascendant strum — a beguiling contradiction.

Nevertheless it used to be within the Crumb that Tan’s expressiveness got here into play. Overhead, each and every of the suite’s inspirational art work — from Klee, Picasso, O’Keefe and others — used to be projected on a display screen. Tan leaned into the piano, climbed beneath it, rested atop it, and right here and there arced away to sweep her palms throughout a tree of placing percussion: a cylinder of brass, a wash of chimes, a small brass cymbal.

The sound international she created all through used to be enveloping, heat and attentive. It’s arduous to assign a phrase like “arbitrary” or “noise” to an enjoy that ceaselessly looks like arbitrary noise, however Tan’s stewardship of Crumb’s formless compositions used to be forthrightly human, a full-body exercise that gave the impression simply as reliant on spirit.

As Rorem famous, it used to be natural, unqualified expression, placing within the air. However two hours didn’t look like just about sufficient. (Sorry, Ned.)

It’s most likely a bit merciless that Rorem stays extra broadly remembered for his juicy journals than for the dependable generosity of his song. However Rorem, greater than maximum, appeared to remember the fact that legacy counted just for such a lot — that the composer’s number one job used to be to mention what had to be mentioned, in some way that nobody else may say it.

“The musical highway I’ve lengthy trod — a highway whose landmarks and pitfalls are higher described by way of the song itself than by way of any prose — has narrowed to a thread and reached a lifeless finish on my doorstep,” he wrote in his diary on New 12 months’s Eve in 1969. “Certainly, most effective I will be able to break out with the language I sing.”

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