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Notes By Vinokur, Effects By Zeus

New York
07/02/2014 -  
“In Celebration of Independence Day”
Louis Moreau Gottschalk: L’Union
Frederic Rzewski: North American Ballad “Dreadful Memories”
Andy Akiho: Vick(i/y) for prepared piano
Scott Wheeler: Life Study (World Premiere) – Cowley Meditation
Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Canons
Earl Wild: Three Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin

Olga Vinokur (Pianist)

O. Vinokur (© Courtesy of the Artist)

That flamboyant, exuberant, dashing musical genius, Louis Moreau Gottschalk could never have imagined his eight-minute L’Union to be performed with God providing the electric zing.

The work is thundery enough, a pre-Ives, pre-Hendrix quodilibet (or in Gottschalk’s words, “Concert Paraphrase”) of Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle, and Hail Columbia, all to typically bravura, Gottschalk pyrotechnics including the sounds of soldiers marching.

This might have sufficed for that splendid Russian/Israeli/American virtuoso Olga Vinokur. She, though, hadn’t reckoned on Zeus and Thor, the Deities of Lightning and Thunder making their appearance over the East River during her performance. So while the fireworks of American patriotism were banged out on the piano, those mischievous Meteorological Immortals were playing their own music heard and seen through the panoramic window behind the artist, with flashes and bolts, mists over the East River and those thunderous sounds which only James Joyce could put into alphabetical letters.

It didn’t faze Ms. Vinokur in the least. Unlike the New York Philharmonic–which celebrates Independence Day with a concert or Russian music this week–Ms. Vinokur played an eclectic assortment of American music with aplomb (perhaps a scintilla too much aplomb for sometimes ornery creations). The selections were diverse indeed. Two original works with the composers in evidence, patriotism and ideology from Gottschalk and Rzewski, and an homage to Gershwin from one of his great virtuoso acolytes, Earl Wild. Ms. Vinokur, a frequent performer at BargeMusic, showed the same solid technique, a terrific sense of the appropriate style for each composer, and would do any American audience pride.

The most impressive work had no particular patriotic meaning, but Andy Akiho’s Vick(i/y) for Prepared Piano was by far the most inventive and interesting new work. A “prepared piano” is a throwback to the late 1960’s, with David Tudor and the “happenings” of the time. But while Ms. Vinokur was preparing her instrument, Ms. Akiho gave an entertaining introduction. His stage moments are decidedly hip-hop, but his description of the title (two friends named Vick...one ending with “I”, the other with “y” assuaged the puzzlement of the title.

The music itself, varying from fast to slow and back again, was a rainbow of color and repetition. Certain notes were repeated a few dozen times, not as minimalist but as a statement with commentary from the rest of the piano. The “preparation” part with coins and clips inside the keyboard, were like a timbre-equivalent of quarter-tones. Slightly different colors, sometimes opposing each other, sometimes harmonizing.

What I liked most was that a certain section with appeal–one of those repeated notes, or a bottom-key sounding like a bass guitar–would come back at various times, giving a sense of both charm, fun and familiarity.

Scott Wheeler’s two musical portraits were amiable , well structured, but not as memorable, while Kenneth Fuchs Falling Canons gave a chance for Ms. Vinokur to show her digital dynamism.

I had a minor problem with her performance of Frederick Rzewski’s Dreadful Memories (taken from the hymn tune “Precious Melodies”). Rzewski’s more popular North American Ballads have their own dynamism, their incredible technical challenges, and a self-made energy. This first is more subtle, and while Ms. Vinokur didn’t miss a note, one missed the almost offhand softly rocking melody which took off into its own stratosphere. The melody could be by Hoagy Carmichael, Ms. Vinokur played it well but without the secrets within its simple core.

The final works were three of Earl Wild’s equally difficult etudes on Gershwin songs. Actually, Gershwin’s music itself was so far away from popular music of the day–the harmonies, the modulations, the melodies following few rules– that they are etudes in themselves. But Ms. Wild, coming from the coal-mining section of Pennsylvania, knew how to harness them in to provide his own magical transformations.

Played by the composer, they become totally improvisatory, played by Marc-André Hamelin, they become improvisations on the improvisations. They need a special inner adaptation. And I’m not certain whether Ms. Vinokur has it. The notes were perfect, the performance was vivacious. Yet the radiation comes from within, from the illusion that the pianist is playing the music for the very first time.

Ms. Vinokur is adept, tasteful, and is a fine performer. Sometimes, though the Gershwin/Wild fascinatin’ rhythms were not quite as fascinatin’ as they could be. Perhaps her one non-American encore, Scriabin’s early Etude was more akin to her stylish temperament.

Harry Rolnick



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