Rzewski Festival opens with a piano classic and body percussion

Mon Nov 05, 2018 at 12:57 pm
Anthony de Mare performed in the opening program of Rzewski Festival Sunday night at Spectrum.

Anthony de Mare performed in the opening program of Rzewski Festival Sunday night at Spectrum.

Spectrum’s Rzewski Festival opened Sunday evening with pianist Corey Hamm playing the composer’s great The People United will Never Be Defeated! It’s a measure of how fine the concert was that the evening got even better after that.

The festival will predominately feature piano music—Rzewski’s own instrument and the bulk of his catalogue-—and along with Hamm featured superb performances by Michael Noble and Anthony de Mare.

The People United is a stirring work, always worth going out of one’s way to experience. Hanm has recorded it, an album that has earned the composer’s praise, and he showed understanding of and commitment to the music.

After the opening Chilean protest theme, Hamm released a torrent. His fingers were not always as quick as his thinking through the first few variations, but Variation 5, with its series of fortissimo chords followed by the frozen ringing of the piano strings, brought everything into coordination.

What followed was a stirring performance that dug deep into the expressionism of the music. Rzewski’s well-earned reputation as a political artist can overshadow the beautiful, complex communication in his composing. The protest song is a vehicle for impassioned and harmonically rich variations—some take the theme apart and rebuild it but most are quasi-improvisational explorations that are close to the world of Schumann and Chopin.

Hamm’s playing built up greater and greater tension and involvement, the feeling that the inchoate and inexpressible was being quantified in music. The final five variations came together with a headlong inevitability, and for the improvisational finale, Hamm cannibaiized bits from previous passages and added some personal harmonies.

Anthony De Mare performed the one non-piano piece, Lost and Found, for a percussionist who plays his own body while reciting text. The words come from a sarcastic letter an infantry officer wrote from Vietnam, telling a comical and fantastic story about a lecture he gave on the subject of ambushes.

Rzewski asks the performer to be naked, or nearly so. De Mare came out in a pair of camouflaged briefs, and with his high and tight buzz-cut, muscular body, and dogtags had the dramatic look of a marine. His performance was a perfect match for the material, bitter and aggressive but with a touch of slapstick, a biting mix of comedy, tragedy, and anger.

Michael Noble’s set mixed together the abstract onomatopoeia of “Bells,” from The Road, with “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” from North American Ballads. There was an impressive naturalness about Nobles’ playing in the former, and the latter was exceptional. The pianist’s rhythm and timing in the bass lines was smooth, slightly swinging, pushing the beat just enough. He played the tone clusters with real expression and musicality, and his feeling for the blues in the gorgeous middle section was deep and true.

“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” was almost the most enthralling moment of the night. But then de Mare returned for De Profundis, one of Rzewski’s unique works for speaking pianist. The text comes from Oscar Wilde’s famous letter from Reading Gaol—the composer broke it down into eight excerpts which are introduced by an equal number of instrumental preludes, which shift in mood and style.

In the composer’s own words, De Profundis “demands a combination of virtuoso technique and a total lack of inhibition on stage.” De Mare has the technique, and his performance of Lost and Found showed he had the attitude as well. More than that, he’s an actor, and he crossed the line between an artist performing the work of another to someone who sounded like he himself had written the words and was creating his own accompaniment.

This was a gripping and moving performance. For the listener, it went beyond observing and admiring from the outside and became a living thing on stage, as if one was sitting in de Mare’s home, listening to him tell his own story. This was an ideal meeting of composer and interpreter, and a unique and wonderful experience.

Rzewski Festival continues through November 8 with an additional concert November 29. The next concert is 7 p.m. Monday. spectrumnyc.org

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