Kalhous’ wide-ranging remix proves fascinating at Spectrum

Sat Sep 26, 2015 at 1:56 pm
David Kalhous performed Friday night at Spectrum.

David Kalhous performed Friday night at Spectrum.

Playlists are everywhere, except for classical music concerts. The ability to shuffle digital tracks from any source into any sequence is more than a listening convenience for the consumer, it’s a way to see how one piece of music might relate to others across the distances of concept, style, and time.

Classical concerts are predominately different kinds of lists, one (hopefully) masterpiece after another, programmed for logistics as much for aesthetics. They cover a lot of great music, sure, but each piece is separated from the back and forth flow of history, set in place like an aptly titled natura mort.

At Spectrum on Friday night, pianist David Kalhous made, and played, a concert program that was more like a playlist than anything else, and the result was fascinating to the ears, mind and heart in a way infrequently felt in the concert hall. Kalhous’ excellent pianism, which is precise, sensitive, and polished, was a key. But the recital was affecting mainly because Kalhous made history talk with itself, and to the audience.

He combined old music, modern music, and contemporary music (two world premieres). Nothing radical there, except he put the pieces together into sets, then played them without any break in between. He demonstrated a commonality and consistency of ideas and values across the epochs. And his unusual choices made for an evocative conversation.

For the first set, Kalhous played two Scarlatti sonatas, Two Intermissions and Intermission No. 5 by Morton Feldman, and Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905. Before he played, the pianist spoke about what he considered the relationship between all three composers, how they were predominately concerned with individual musical events rather than formal issues.

It was exciting hearing how after the trumpet-like sonata L. 104, and the tense, suspended harmonies of L. 475, Feldman sounded like Scarlatti forced through a sieve. Scarlatti’s invigorating style primed the ears for Feldman and gave his own style an acute presence. Kalhous played Scarlatti brilliantly, and left the impression that in the middle of Feldman’s spaces, his fingers were liable to start dancing along the keyboard. Janacek’s sonata, which makes the piano sound like it is both singing and talking, seemed to reassemble Scarlatti through Feldman, continuing the conversation between the composers.

Kalhous’ second set was even more stimulating. He played Ligeti’s ballad-like Arc-en-Ciel from Book 1 of the Etudes, and then Chopin’s A minor Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4. Together, they sounded like two parts of the same work from the same composer. His Chopin playing was impressive: cutting through the romanticism to reveal the rhythmic and harmonic architecture.

Then came selections from a new work by Michael Vincent Waller, Visages. Waller is finding his core voice in public, not an everyday experience for a listener. He works in a lyrical, post-minimalist vein, and his developing style fitfully alternates responses to Meredith Monk and Satie. The final “Three Things” was another fanfare, echoing Scarlatti.

The other premiere came from Czech composer Jiri Kadeřábek. His Hindyish is an inventive, witty piece. It’s ostensibly a combination of Hindu rhythms and a Hebrew melody, but is really much more. The opening rhythm itself could have just as easily come from Herbie Hancock’s arrangement of his own “Watermelon Man” on the Head Hunters album, and the bravura runs that explode all over the keyboard are an answer to some of Ligeti’s most exhilarating Etudes. It’s as if the younger composer said, “Gyorgy, what do you think of this?” Kadeřábek’s answer was impressive, seriously made and also entertaining.

Kalhous bookended Hindyish with five of Gyorgy Kurtag’s aphoristic Játékok (Games), and concluded the concert with more Chopin, the Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44. The Games were an effective way to bring the past back into dialogue with the present.

Kalhous had planned to play more Janacek, On the Overgrown Path, as the penultimate piece, but the time was growing late and the live jazz from the bar below Spectrum was bleeding through. So just the Chopin, played with verve and a percussive attack. Why that piece? “I put it on the program just because I like it.” It made for a terrific, unintentional encore.

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