Chamber Music Northwest: All hands on the grands

Chamber Music Northwest put the piano front and center for "Six Hands, Two Grands"

By ANGELA ALLEN

Who says classical music isn’t a hoot and a holler?

At Tuesday evening’s “Two Grands, Six Hands” concert in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, part of Chamber Music Northwest’s summer festival, eight hands played Romantic composer Albert Lavignac’s “Galop-marche.”

Somehow four pianists, three of them relatively tall men, squeezed onto three small piano benches behind one Steinway. Their overdrive friskiness left starchiness and formality in its wake. Throughout the 5-minute piece, not counting moments when each musician had a few “hands” breaks with which to goof around, each played like a maniacal pro. They never once tangled any of their 40 fingers.

Sometimes the six hands became eight at Chamber Music Northwest's "Six Hands, Two Grands" concert/Photo by Jonathan Lange

Sometimes the six hands became eight at Chamber Music Northwest’s “Six Hands, Two Grands” concert/Photo by Jonathan Lange

Hilda Huang was the fourth pianist. The Yale University chemistry major shared a bench with her Yale music mentor, Melvin Chen. She is a Chamber Music Northwest protege artist, and before the “Galope” encore, she endeared herself to listeners in a six-hand, one-grand version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, K. 492.

Fellow protege Yevgeny Yontov joined Huang and Chen for the piece that masterfully abbreviates the opera’s themes in five fast minutes. So nice to hear Mozart! Chamber Music Northwest has featured Beethoven and his quartets this summer, and with all due respect to the grand master and his late works, I was glad to have a break.

Huang moved to the second Steinway for the second Mozart piece, Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448. This time she played opposite Swiss-born virtuoso Gilles Vonsattel in his CMNW debut. With her expressive head, body, arms, hands and wrists, Huang was pure pleasure to watch and hear.

Mozart wrote the sonata in his mid-20s to play with his student, Josepha Auernhammer, who had a huge crush on him. He didn’t marry her, but the elegant three-movement sonata, which allows for high speed-technical work and fierce emotional expression, was the result. The two piano parts are well matched in difficulty and showmanship, so Vonsattel shined as brightly as Huang—or the other way around. (Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas, and no one’s counting, but Beethoven composed 32.)

The second part of the program was all Russian.

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s witty 1979 work required six hands on one piano. The mercifully short 7-minute “Homage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich” was a tongue-in-cheek tribute in which each composer tries to outplay the others – at the same time. Prokofiev’s booming low notes, intended to imitate Soviet factories, were all there.

The piece was an ear-wrenching blast. The musicians knew the work well enough to persuade us to admire them rather than to hate the homage. Schnittke died at 63 in 1998, and his reputation grows post-death, even if some of us don’t put this piece on our favorites list.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite for Two Pianos No. 2 in C Major, Op. 17, emerged as the lush beauty queen of the evening, with Yontov and Vonsattel playing opposite one another on separate grands.

The story behind the piece: In 1897, Rachmaninoff was devastated by nasty reviews of his first symphony, and a psychiatrist coaxed him out of his depression and writing freeze by using hypnosis and other innovative methods. In 1901, this treasured four-movement suite arrived. The last movement, the tarantella, is based on a folk dance so frenzied that while dancing it, one purportedly can sweat out a tarantula’s venom.

Rachmaninoff’s piano music is absolutely symphonic; he makes a single piece sound like an orchestra. Imagine what two pianos did.

Speaking of fun, it was great to see some kids at this concert.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Given your Schnittke slam, i’m curious as to how much of his music you are familiar with?

Comments are closed.

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