Falko Steinbach recital preview: Dancing around the Piano

Two pianist / composers making weighty traditions light on their feet


Renowned German / American pianist / composer Falko Steinbach is coming to Portland Piano Company this evening at 7:30 PM. If you’re in the mood for something serious in a good way, something old, and something new, all in a package offered with warmth and dramatic zing, check him out. Back in mid-November, when he was at PPC for another event, I heard him trying out the epic Mozart sonata (no, Mozart sonatas are not all grace and elegance) and some of the incomparable late Brahms works he’ll play tonight, and I was mightily charmed and impressed.

Falko Steinbach

Falko Steinbach

He’ll also play some of his own work, and the sample I heard at that time made an even bigger impact. Alexander Schwarzkopf, an up-and-coming Eugene pianist / composer with a voracious appetite for new music and the highest standards for its performance, danced his way through an utterly absorbing rendition of Steinbach’s Figures: 17 Choreographic Etudes for Piano. (Portland new music enthusiasts will no doubt remember Schwarzkopf’s vital contribution to last June’s hit festival of George Crumb’s music, “The Makrokosmos Project.”) That work clearly and unaffectedly looks back to the uncompromising modernism of the mid-20th century, and yet, while I listened, theory was the the last thing on my mind. Many etudes were overtly dancelike, others danced with humor, and on a deeper level, I got a strong sense of an overarching dramatic narrative as in a major choreographic work. It seemed to demand Schwarzkopf work out more than a little choreography on his own, too – it’s not for pianists who like to sit calmly on the bench, sailing unruffled through the storms. And yet there was nothing contrived about his fascinating performance, no doubt made possible by the somewhat astonishing fact that he committed the entire complex work to memory.

Most fascinating of all was the rich and seemingly endless variety of pianistic coloration, thanks to both composer and pianist, and this marks Figures as a fully 21st century work despite its obvious antecedents. Almost from the beginning a contrast was set up between insistent repeated notes and scattered plangent bell-like chords, a rich Brahmsian one in particular. Their relationship reappeared in various ways throughout the 17 movements, as if they were central figures of a musical saga. Inventive appearances of tone clusters and other dense harmony played around them, like colorful minor characters weaving in and out of the main narrative.

I have no idea if the composition Steinbach will play tonight, New Mexico Pianoscapes – no doubt inspired by his experiences since joining the faculty of the University of New Mexico as full professor of piano – will come across in a similar way, or as something completely different, but I’m sure it deserves to be heard by at least a roomful of people. Go and see how it grabs you.

Falko Steinbach performs Friday, January 29 at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Ave. Portland. Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He feels fortunate to have Alexander Schwarzkopf (along with Eugene soprano Nancy Wood) performing one of his songs in Eugene tomorrow evening, January 30.

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