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Painting in Notes

New York
BargeMusic, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
07/02/2010 -  
Scott Wheeler: Cowley Meditation: A Portrait of James Woodman; Stone South: A Portrait of Susan Unterberg (World Premiere)
Andrew Rudin: Portrait Miniatures: Three Women for piano solo: (World Premiere):
I Valse Gracieuse (for Grace Shulman)
II. To A Wild Rose (for Rose Moss)
III. The Answered Question (for Louise Talma)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Thirty-three Variations in C on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Opus 120

Beth Levin (Pianist)

B. Levin (© Peter Schaaf)

Painting a live person in music is hardly revolutionary. The Mystery Plays frequently parodied contemporaries as Biblical characters (just as painters used their patrons as saints). Lully wrote music especially for the character of Louix XIV), and even austere J.S. Bach wrote about Frederick the Great in his wonderful Coffee Cantata. As for Mozart, he came far too close to the bone in Figaro, and Schumann painted some of his fellow composers on the piano.

Stephen Foster gave a stirring picture of “Old Black Joe”, and of course Sir Edward Elgar denoted his “enigmatic” friends in the most famous series of painted biographies.

The iconic portrait-notater in America, Virgil Thomson was probably the first person to “paint” subjects while they sat before him. A pianist friend remembers playing piano as fast as he could to Mr. Thomson’s request, and his musical portrait is one of the better ones. He must have done a few hundred, though only a few dozen are recorded, and few are played nowadays. They are charming but ephemeral.

BargeMusic devoted an evening to musical portraits last night, with one pianist, whose own artistic history deserves a portrait or two. Each have personal links, which made the evening even more endearing. Composer Scott Wheeler wrote two bagatelles in Olde American style, obviously taking after one of his teachers, Virgil Thomson himself. Andrew Rudin’s four decades as composer for every media, have acquainted him with some of the more intriguing figures which he “painted” last night.

As for Beth Levin, who devoted the second half to the Beethoven “Diabelli” variations, amongst her esteemed teachers was Rudolf Serkin, who is easily one of the four or five greatest recorded artists of the same work.

Connections aside, the actual musical bios were taken care of almost like a passing thought. The five bagatelles took barely 20 minutes before the intermission, yet they each had their charms.

Mr. Wheeler’s first piece, A Cowley Meditation was for the esteemed organist of a Cambridge monastery, James Woodman (who was in attendance, along with both composers), and it was indeed meditative. Slow movements in the bass, a few figurations on the top scale, then back to (what could have been) an organ pedal point.

For photographer Susan Unterberg, in her Stone South studio, we must have had a more whimsical portrait, for Mr. Wheeler let the piano whirl about a little before a sudden halt. I have never met Ms. Unterberg, but she must be a frolicsome character.

Andrew Rudin is best known as a pioneer in electronic music, having scored works for opera, drama, ballet and orchestra. His teachers have included Stockhausen himself. So obviously this was atonal music, wispy yet highly enjoyable.

While he is a most serious artist, two-thirds of the music were puns. Grace Shulman, poet and poetry editor of The Nation, was given a “gracious waltz”. The South African writer, Rose Moss work was titled “To A Wild Rose”. One enigma was for the late Louise Talma, in a play on Ives’ famous work, “The Answered Question.” I don’t know what the question or the answer was, but the few dense measures made it seem that the solution took only a few words.

The Beethoven Diabelli Variations were also biographical, but less the biography of amateur composer Anton Diabelli than Beethoven himself. Asked to write a single variation on the waltz, he came up with 33 variations that must have come out of the composer with lightning speed, showing every aspect of his fecund artistry.

As his last piano work, the Diabelli could be in the same pantheon as Bach’s final piece, Art of the Fugue. The latter, though (which was never finished), had the structure of increasing density. Hearing the Beethoven, played by Ms. Levin, one had the idea that Beethoven let himself write whatever came into his head.

Yes, they had all the earmarks of Beethoven late sonatas. Trills, sudden chords, meditative phrasing and strange modulations. The secret is not to keep this work “organic”, as one sweeping panorama. But to make each variation a world unto itself, and making the next even more of a surprise.

Ms. Levin is a most polished pianist (with Serkin as a mentor, how could she not be?), and she had many memorable moments. I loved the mock-march first variation, and her very pointed dissonance in the seventh. The ninth was played with resolute logic, but somehow missed the humor of Beethoven, who obviously let his fingers have their own jocular way. The 19th was played with utmost delicacy, and the final minuet had a wonderfully restrained classical aura.

The complete Diabelli Variations were played with great respect and faultless technique, and I have a feeling Mr. Levin’s forthcoming recording of the work will be well received. Still, in the background, I unfairly heard in my mind the sounds of Brendel and Serkin himself. With both, I felt a sense of unity. With Ms. Levin, the pieces were often character studies, but lacked perhaps the humor, the surprise and the invisible “glue” which holds them together.

Harry Rolnick



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