Devilish artistry and audience engagement

A pair of visiting pianists impress listeners in different ways

Yevgeny Sudbin performed in Portland Piano International's recital series.

Yevgeny Sudbin performed in Portland Piano International’s recital series.


“A grave young man dressed in black…who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive…being asked to sit down at the harpsichord, when he began to play, Rosy said, he thought ten hundred devils had been at the instrument.”

Russian-born pianist Yevgeny Sudbin‘s April 7 debut at Portland Center for the Performing Arts’s Newmark Theatre mirrored that account given by the 18th-century music historian Charles Burney of his friend’s first encounter with Scarlatti himself. Like that great Italian Baroque composer, Sudbin appeared with grave quietness and, as the Portland Piano International concert progressed, revealed devilish artistry. The aching tenderness of the Sonata in F minor, K. 466 transformed the spacious hall into an intimate space where audience and pianist together experienced the vulnerability of each note within Scarlatti’s exposed textures. Sudbin’s Scarlatti interpretations required immense technical control, and Sudbin placed his mastery at complete service to the expression of common human experiences like loss, longing, and celebration.

The audience wanted to join the rambunctious dancing of the Sonata in G Major, K. 455, and would have broken into applause if Sudbin had not immediately turned to the mournful Sonata in G minor.  A collective sigh was heard as Sudbin lingered on the last notes, and Sudbin himself seemed more relaxed as he moved into Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor, K. 27, a sonata that he has performed with more seriousness in recordings, but which showed finer clarity and a humorous twinkle that evening.

Sudbin cantered virtuosically through Chopin’s Ballade no. 3 in A-Flat Major, op. 47, allowing the score to breathe within the flamboyant musical excesses without losing the insistence of the middle melodic voices. Sudbin then transported the audience to Debussy’s “Happy Island.” The ending features chords thundering into the shores of the island; pianists often take great liberty in executing these demanding chords, but Sudbin blasted right through, creating an exhilarating experience that was echoed in tumultuous applause.

After intermission the audience returned for “Funerals” and “Harmonies of the Evening” by Franz Liszt. In “Harmonies of the Evening,” Sudbin spun each phrase to its utter completion without losing musical momentum. And then finally: Scriabin’s Sonata no. 5! Sudbin’s hands hit the keys before he even settled onto the bench; the music spewed forth in fury, flying away into the sunset like a million mad blackbirds. Just as suddenly Sudbin changed his touch to the warmth and introspection recognizable from the opening Scarlatti. He achieved clarion voicing by employing the full range of touch provided by the fingertips and fingerpads; this, combined with his alternation of judicious and luscious use of pedal made for tight shifts in timbre and wound the musical tension into epic proportions, never fully climaxing until the sudden ultimate, cathartic release.

The audience wanted more and Sudbin gave it to them: three encores, complete with his own wild arrangement of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” which included echoes of Liszt’s “Funerals.” The audience laughed appreciatively at the musical quotes, and as the audience filed out one listener commented admiringly, “You have to be a maniac to create something like that!”

Celluloid Heroes

On April 14, Bay Area pianist Lara Downes transported her audience at Reed College to the Hollywood golden age of Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, and the movie score mastermind Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Joined by Portland cellist John Hubbard, Downes began the recital with “Romance Impromptu,” a short, unpublished piece composed by Korngold for Deception, a film noir produced in 1946. Although cut from the final film production, its sweeping, romantic phrases perfectly capture the plot of a cellist falling in love with a troubled pianist.

Lara Downes understands what her audience needs and collaborates with those best suited to enrich the musical experience. Korngold’s granddaughter, Katy Korngold Hubbard, joined Downes in discussing her grandfather’s life and musical output as an exile from Austria. Invited by Warner Brothers in 1938 to compose the score for Robin Hood, Korngold and his wife caught a ship for America; however, Korngold disliked the production ideas for the film and decided to return immediately to his work in Austria. As the couple prepared to leave, a friend called and informed the Korngolds that Germany had just annexed Austria. Quickly reversing plans, they retrieved their son from Austria, and moved to Hollywood. Korngold refused to write concert music until the war was over, focusing solely on composing for American films.

Portland’s Korngold Hubbard showed the audience the Oscar trophy that her grandfather won for his film score “Anthony Adverse,” and Downes shared the trailers for “Robin Hood” and “Between Two Worlds”. While the audience laughed at the old-fashioned acting, Downes helped them experience the present-day relevance of Korngold’s music. She said that she and John Hubbard had been struggling to achieve “correct” phrasing in “Pierrot’s Dance Song,” an aria Korngold composed in 1920, before coming to America, for his opera “The Dead City”: the lyrics read “O stay, don’t go far away, preserve the memory of your homeland’s peaceful, flourishing happiness.” Then they heard a recording of Korngold playing this very piece at a party in Hollywood. Downes used her computer to play that recording for the audience, who quickly noticed how Korngold lathered his improvisation with rich chords and romantic phrasing. The recording picked up the clinking of glasses and the chatter of party attendees. When it ended, the listeners at the 1940s Hollywood party and those sitting in present-day Eliot Hall joined in applause for this exiled composer. As Downes and Hubbard played the arrangement for cello and piano, the hall felt magically situated between these two worlds.


Lara Downes played music of Erich Korngold at Reed College.

Downes’ latest CD, “Exile’s Café”, features the first movement of Korngold’s Piano Sonata No. 2, and Downes gave her audience the bonus of hearing all four movements. Written when Korngold was just fifteen, the sonata’s cinematic proportions are already in place: a heroic theme, a march into battle, a romantic pursuit, and the final hero’s triumph. Clearly communicating the emotionally-charged music of Korngold requires a huge variety of touch and ingenuity of pedal technique. But while Downes guided the audience through the hero’s journey with impressive energy, Korngold’s harmonic inventiveness was often obscured in textural homogeneity.

Listeners evidently enjoyed Downes’ charismatic performance and conversation, and showed their appreciation by staying to ask thoughtful questions during the Q&A session. Downes succeeds at connecting with audiences because of her engaging projects that connect audiences to great music. If you want to be a part of Downes’ upcoming projects, follow her on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter.

Jana Hanchett covers Portland classical music for ArtsWatch.

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