Pianist Lee brings clarity, order and hope to Spectrum program
Classical music is still in many quarters regarded as an exalted and esoteric art, separated from commonplace concerns and experiences and thus timeless, and even pure.
This has never been, nor can ever be, the case. Music making is a fundamentally human endeavor, and everyone involved—composer, musician, and listener—brings their own shifting accumulation of daydreams, frustrations, failures, triumphs, and, most of all, their responses to the constant intrusions of the world around.
Pianist R. Andrew Lee made this sharply and poignantly clear in his recital Thursday night at Spectrum. Before he played, he spoke about the the massacre of worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Beyond the effect of such awfulness, Lee found himself unsure if he could play the careful, deliberate program he devised.
Lee played five pieces as a continuous set, with no stopping for applause in between. It was the final two works that concerned him in the context of the tragic news of the day: Adrian Knight’s recomposition of the hymn Abide With Me, followed by Galen Brown’s God is a Killer, which combines piano music with a recording of evangelist A.A. Allen proclaiming that “God is a killer.”
“It’s easy for these voices,” of destruction, “to become overpowering,” Lee said, “because they are so loud.” It was good that he went ahead with his original plan, because making music, a fundamentally social activity, is a superior response.
The first piece was Michael Vincent Waller’s Pasticcio per meno è piu (which can be heard on a new CD of Waller’s music, The South Shore). Waller is a young composer working outside the predominant styles of pop-inflected post-minimalism. His roots are in Satie, and he served an apprenticeship with LaMonte Young. Pasticcio is a trademark piece, with simple harmonic movement, a regular pulse, and a flowing melodic line that at times doubles back on interior phrases before proceeding. The means are modest, and Lee was sensitive to the calm, confident affect of the music.
The performance also set the tone for the entire concert, inscribing a world of music inside the larger world. Everything that was going to happen would have a sense of order and structure. The contrast with Lee’s comments made one think that perhaps that special bubble that settles into concert venues just before the music starts is created by a feeling of mutual trust, that all involved expect everything to make sense.
Though never flashy or overstated, Lee’s program and playing displayed integrity and clarity of thought. He followed Pasticcio with three Preludes by Leah Kardos. This is well-shaped music that moves the attention to the point of both satisfaction and anticipation. Like Waller, Kardos reaches back to late romantic and early modern French music, and there is a hint of minimalism by means of pulse.
The programming gave it, and everything else, an unexpected affinity. In the middle of the five pieces, Lee played the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, D. 894, and it was Schubert who became the foundation of the performance. Lee captured the measured pace and the cantabile quality of the music, and one could hear how Schubert used simple chords and regular units of time to create a reverie off the everyday beaten track. Lee’s approach was essentially modest, and it served the original title of the movement, “Fantasie,” superbly.
Knight’s reworking of the hymn tune began as an improvisation. The music is spacious and warm, a series of quiet chords that seem to open up to the sky. There are fragments of the original in the intermittent appearance of certain whole-step intervals. Like the preceding works, this is interior music that offers itself without explanation. As the end approaches, piquant, discordant notes fall, like rain drops on still pond water.
God is a Killer is for piano and an audio track made from Allen’s original sermon recorded on LP. There was some initial technical difficulty, and the delay broke the atmosphere that Lee’s playing had created. But the piece is so fine, with such firm purpose, that once the music started, that was forgotten. Brown edited the recording with rhythmic precision, added percussive sounds, and used Auto-Tune software to tune Allen’s voice to the piano.
The result is intense and uncanny, like the piano accompaniment to a silent movie, except that one of the characters steps off the screen and speaks directly to the audience. The piano part combines motor-like sixteenth notes over open left hand chords, repeating regular phrases. It reinforces Allen’s voice and brings it to life, and the sensation that one is hearing from the dead has a strange beauty and emotional power.
It’s not feel-good music, but by making honest order out of nothingness, it presents clarity and logic as opposed to chaos and the incomprehensible.
And that is what Lee achieved. The music, the conception and Lee’s playing all built transparent, multidimensional structures. It was a beautiful design, full of satisfaction and hope.