Sara Daneshpour review: Taking flight

Rising Star pianist soars in Portland Piano International recital

by JEFF WINSLOW

Pianist Sara Daneshpour is young, and speaks softly, almost shyly. But her hands flash across the keyboard like lightning and unleash heavenly thunder.

As her November 5 recital at Portland Piano Company, part of Portland Piano International’s Rising Stars series, got underway with two mild-mannered selections from French Baroque composer and seminal tonal theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Suite in A Minor, there was no hint of such godly powers. But she was definitely in command: melodies and harmonies were clear, phrases were elegantly shaped, and layered voices were distinct.

Sara Daneshpour performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Richard Brase.

Even in Maurice Ravel’s atmospheric virtuoso test piece, “Ondine,” which begins and ends with the most delicately piquant resonances, there were only a few rattling rumbles. The various elements were mostly clearly audible and well proportioned as in the Rameau, despite the flurry of fast fingerwork. Only a few unfocused moments and the fact this work is almost always performed as part of a set of three hinted that it may still be in development as a piece of Daneshpour’s repertory. Even so, with a little help from Ravel at the top of his game, it was easy to be uplifted to some magical land by her artistry.

In the same way Daneshpour evoked the exotic world of Ravel’s “Ondine,” her careful attention to detail and sensitive highlighting of piano resonances evoked an expansive prairie habitat in the next piece on the program: veteran Oregon composer Jackie T. Gabel’s coruscating new work in homage to French composer and ornithologist Olivier Messiaen, Sturnella neglecta. Sound obscure? It shouldn’t. Sturnella neglecta is none other than the Oregon state bird, the western meadowlark.

Not that birders familiar with the species would hear anything especially familiar in Gabel’s piece, part of PPI’s Rising Stars commissioning project, unless they were also devotees of Messiaen’s bird-themed piano works. And even Messiaen’s vaunted transcriptions of birdsong to the piano keyboard are highly personal interpretations. They have to be – the piano, for all its power, lacks the agility and flexibility, in pitch and timbre, of even the tiniest feathered songster. Instead, Gabel presents a kind of conceptual meadowlark, casting its many varied songs out over an open landscape of hills and valleys, of light and shadow. Just as an individual meadowlark starts each song in a “set” with the same opening notes, “Sturnella neglecta” is based on a cell of four pitches, heard initially paired with its reflection. And like the bird’s long playlist, that cell mutates into a wide variety of musical guises, giving the work an organic unity all the way to its last sly flutter. (Full disclosure: Gabel is a fellow founder and former board member of Cascadia Composers.)

Respectful Rachmaninov

As enjoyable as the concert was up to this point, I wasn’t expecting much from Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata, an unwieldy monster that pianists all too often blast through as if desperately trying get control of a bulldozer run amok. However, after the initial, admittedly electrifying bass bomb, Daneshpour continued at a relatively restrained pace and with the same clarity that had marked the rest of her program – yet without losing an iota of drama. Even though the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled, we were treated to such masterly and yet respectful interpretation that the monster was very nearly transformed into a masterpiece.

Sara Daneshpour performed at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Richard Brase.

Some pianists still honing their craft seem to have trouble departing much from a middling volume level. And in this sonata there’s a temptation to overuse whatever thunder you’ve got. Daneshpour is well beyond any of that. Throughout the entire performance, even her bravura passages came in all dynamic levels, with plenty of contrast where needed. If anything, she went slightly to extremes. In her lone miscalculation, one explosion of chords, just before the opening torrent of notes dissipates into a placid lake of contrasting melody, sounded more like Stravinsky than Rachmaninov. But she instantly recalibrated, and there was no more of that. In extreme contrast, the placid melody seemed to float over the mountains from some distant canyon, just barely defined enough to be sensual.

After a meandering introduction, the long, drawn-out, almost static phrases of the slow movement hint at the Asiatic side of Russian culture. (In his best such efforts, like the slow movement of his 2nd symphony, it seems Rachmaninov must have been inspired by Indian raga.) This movement can easily lose its way among quasi-improvisatory episodes, but Daneshpour’s unerring sense of elegant phrasing kept the narrative moving, even through a scattering of well-judged contemplative pauses.

When, after a deceptive near-repetition of that meandering introduction, all hell broke loose in the frenetic finale, the steely fingers of the thunder goddess were finally revealed in their fullest glory. And yet even here, amidst vast squadrons of pounding chords, details always remained clear, and she never lost control of the narrative shape. As she amped up speed and intensity in the final headlong climax, I was riveted as if watching an aerial dogfight, not because I really thought she would crash and burn, but just because it seemed any mortal would.

No fear! The final explosive chord was not only flawlessly struck and timed, it seemed as loud as it could possibly be without breaking something, either in the piano or the pianist. I felt an indescribable exhilaration. I’ve been waiting all my life to hear such a performance of this sonata!

New Stars, New Music

As the holiday buying season ramps up, we are bombarded with promises of bargains. The Rising Stars concerts are free to the public and they are some of the most exciting piano performances you’re likely to hear in your community, especially if you live outside the “usual suspect” magnet areas – series concerts have also been given in Astoria, Bend, Newberg, and Hood River. The pianists may not exude the professional polish of more famous names, but at their best, committed performances such as Daneshpour’s Rachmaninov surpass them. Chances are, many will rise to become famous names themselves, and you will have heard them before takeoff. Also, on most programs you’ll hear a brand-new piece by a composer who just might be living down the block from you, shopping at the same grocery store you do.

In the next series of concerts, February 2nd through 5th, you’ll hear work by Greg Steinke, for many years director of the composers’ symposium at the Bloch Festival in Newport and now living near Depoe Bay, played by Rising Star Yuanfan Yang. All in all, a truer bargain than the vast majority of those advertised this season.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist. He serves on the board of Cascadia Composers, which was founded in 2008 by eight composers including himself, Greg Steinke, and Jack Gabel, who suggested the name.

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