The first work that Portland Piano International’s Rising Star Tina Chong played, the first Friday evening in May at Portland Piano Company, did not initially seem to promise any magic moments. True, the title of the 1836 composition was “Nocturne” and the fluid melody and colorful harmony suggested Frédéric Chopin, or at least, a composer who avidly studied and understood that musical conjurer’s newly published works. But like so many Nocturnes, especially by lesser composers, it seemed a simple song in A-B-A form, or if you will, verse / chorus – bridge – verse / chorus (with, as it turned out, a short coda or outro).
And yet something astonishing happened at the end of the bridge. The return of the verse felt nothing like the blithe “oh here we are at home again” restart regurgitated in myriad familiar and forgotten examples of the form. Instead, while the prevailing figuration slyly flowed on underneath, the harmony levitated for a few seconds, skipped the verse’s opening chord altogether and alighted on its first moment of instability. The effect was almost unbearably poignant, as if the adventurer at the keyboard was turned back out onto the open road just when she was at her most vulnerable. One treasures such moments of tone poetry in Chopin, even in Brahms and Beethoven.
Move over, guys. The composer was 16-year-old Clara Wieck, soon to become the wife of much better known composer Robert Schumann. But “composer” was deemed an unsuitable job for a 19th century European woman, and Clara went on to become instead one of the most famous pianists of her time, her own original music buried in obscurity. Two heads are better than one, and no doubt she and Robert influenced each other’s work – there are signs even in this early Nocturne. But Robert got all the credit.
Chong’s sensitive and evocative performance not only allowed Clara’s Nocturne to make its full emotional impact, it also invited contemplation of what such an attitude towards women composers, not fully dissipated today, has cost the world of classical music. Her next number elaborated on the issue. Recently transplanted Portland composer Sarah Zipperer Gaskins, Department Chair of the Professional Music Program at Portland Community College, has paid homage to Clara the composer in her own Nocturne for the Yearning, the fourth of six commissions this season from PPI’s Commissioning Project, which seeks to build a bridge between classics of the repertory and the work of living Oregon composers by funding the composition of original Oregon music. Gaskins’ new work brought that home directly, even repurposing the Schumann Nocturne’s gliding figuration and fragments of its melody to probe the earlier composer’s inner emotional turbulence. In Chong’s supple hands, the piano seemed to sing of an adventurer (Schumann herself), again wandering lonely roads, yearning for a place where her works would be respected and she could build up her compositional confidence.
Chong amped up the turbulence a couple orders of magnitude for her last two numbers, Maurice Ravel’s famously diabolical and diabolically difficult 1908 masterpiece “Scarbo” and Sergei Prokofiev’s epic sixth piano sonata from 1940. Although the 28-year-old San Diegan (originally from Banff, Canada) is still earning her doctoral degree in piano performance and was traveling for the first time with her 1-year-old daughter, Chong displayed a mature power and focus everywhere but in one or two of the most violent climaxes. “Scarbo” in particular gave the impression, ironic because of the frightening unpredictability of its title character, that everything neatly fell into place for the pianist. In the same way that Scarbo’s ghostly antics, as imagined by the poet Aloysius Bertrand, hold his sleepless victim mesmerized even in the midst of terror, Chong’s brilliant performance mesmerized the audience even though many of us knew its terrifying technical challenges.
Keep an eye and an ear out for the two remaining PPI-commissioned works by Oregon composers. Portland’s Jack Gabel and Depoe Bay’s Greg Steinke are a couple of the Oregon musical scene’s grand old warriors, and when paired with pianists of this caliber, they’ll have something to say that you won’t want to miss. They haven’t had to contend with the attitude that has kept Clara Schumann’s compositions in obscurity, but Oregon’s seeming reluctance to believe in its own composers has had somewhat the same effect. Let’s hope PPI’s initiative inspires other local high-profile presenters to cast any lingering hesitation aside.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers as does Greg Steinke. Jack Gabel has a long association with the group.