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S & H International Concert Review

The New Piano: Played by Hand, Lisa Moore, piano, Merkin Concert Hall, New York City, May 9, 2004 (BH)


Andriessen: The Memory of Roses (1992)
Wolfe: Compassion (2001)
Lang: This was written by hand (2003)
Gordon: Sonatra (2004, world premiere)

With composer Louis Andriessen seemingly everywhere in town for a massive celebration of his work, the probing Lisa Moore included one of his lesser-known gems to begin what became an exhilarating afternoon. As she took the stage, she paused in front of a vase of red roses, glowing on a low table in front of the piano. For six minutes she gazed at them, gently touched one, leaned over with eyes closed to inhale its fragrance, and seemed to reflect on some faraway memory. Only then did she seat herself – actually at two pianos, with a toy keyboard placed on top of the usual one, with Moore playing the former with her left hand, and the latter with her right. Andriessen uses the "real" piano in a higher range, its timbres mirroring those of its smaller cousin. The effect is oddly nostalgic, a valentine that seems disarmingly different from his usual output, such as Workers Union (played the night before by Bang on a Can, with Moore at the piano.)

Julia Wolfe’s Compassion was written for composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and as it happened, conceived in the days after September 11, 2001. It opens with a quietly glistening tremolo in fourths that soon reaches an anguished climax, ultimately returning to the figure with which it began. The tenderness here was in refreshing contrast to the explosiveness of the rest of the program.

In an age of computer-assisted music notation, David Lang wanted to explore how using a pencil might affect his work, and the result, This was written by hand, is gently contrapuntal, almost childlike in its clarity. Again with timbres that seemed to mirror those of the toy piano, Lang’s lucid exercise in compositional thought again let Moore’s lyrical side emerge, and made a good foil for the premiere that followed.

Michael Gordon’s extravagant new Sonatra, written for Ms. Moore, is constructed almost exclusively of arpeggios that course from one end of the keyboard to the other. Each traversal, however, varies slightly in length, sometimes just by two or three notes, and eventually the arpeggios begin to overlap, reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’s experiments. (This piece must have been a nightmare to learn.) Near the end the composer adds an almost Mozartean series of trills and scales to the mix, and then the entire affair just sort of ends, stopped cold in its tracks. I confess to being a relative neophyte, as far as knowing Gordon’s work (and unfortunately could not attend the intriguing concerts later in the day by Alarm Will Sound and Gordon’s own group), but I did find Sonatra wildly stimulating in Moore’s hands, flying up and down the piano with a deadpan virtuosity.

The afternoon was capped by a stunning, heart-pounding encore, Piano Piece No. 4 by Frederic Rzewski. Written in 1977 with the grim reign of Augusto Pinochet in mind, the piece opens with ominous clustered chords that Moore hammered with brutal intensity, and ends with piercing, anguished high notes intended to be gunshots.

Bruce Hodges


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