Pianist Thomas Pandolfi opens the Distinguished Artists Series in Santa Cruz

Thomas Pandolfi_edited-1

The Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture series began the fall season with a solid program of great piano music on a great piano played by Thomas Pandolfi at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on Sunday, September 27. Sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt were the meat and potatoes of the program, with an Impromptu by Schubert and smaller pieces by Liszt as buffers to the larger works.

Thomas Pandolfi is an exceptional virtuoso pianist who enjoys a comfortable connection with the audience. Not only is he a convincing artist at the piano, but he is also skillful in engaging the audience before each piece with helpful comments on what to expect to hear — and he is as comfortable using a microphone to introduce each piece as he is in the actual performances.

The major challenge for every performer in this setting is how to handle the booming acoustics of this beautiful and comfortable setting in Peace United Church while sitting at the controls of the powerful Yamaha CFX grand piano.

Music by Mozart suffers from such grand dimensions. The Sonata in F Major, K.332, would benefit from a more intimate setting, for rapid passages lacked clarity in the large space of the church. At times it sounded as if the sustaining pedal was overused. Perhaps the performance was a bit too aggressive, although the lyricism of the slow movement was paced just right. Pandolfi’s performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat, Op. 90, No. 4 fared much better. Colorful shifts of harmony were easy to follow because of subtle use of rubato, creating a flexible and natural movement.

From the first chords of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique it was clear that a different sound was about to come from the instrument. This early Beethoven sonata follows procedure established by Haydn and Mozart while pushing boundaries of expression that point toward the romantic music of the 19th century. Although the earlier pieces on the program used a reasonable variety of dynamics, Pandolfi brought a fullness and weight to his sound in the Pathétique Sonata that enhanced the dramatic qualities of this stormy work. The storm clears in the songful slow movement and this performance brought out the long melodic lines that clearly touched hearts in the audience. The final rondo was played with great variety and contrast.

The second half of the program featured original compositions and a transcription by Liszt. Schumann’s song Widmung (Dedication) in Liszt’s transcription is a lovely, tender work that takes on grand lyrical proportions with a few technically demanding passages. Although this performance suffered from the booming acoustics in the church that detract from the clarity of sound, the following performance of Liebestraum No. 3 (“Dream of Love”) required a more gentle sound and was superb with its shimmering cadenzas that sounded so easy.

Perhaps that sense of ease is one of Pandolfi’s greatest assets. It’s a pleasure to hear difficult music when the performer has such masterful control over its technical demands. That was evident in the “Dante” Sonata by Liszt, a blockbuster piece that some pianists might avoid because of its technical demands. Pandolfi’s opening comments were useful to the audience to understand the significance and importance of  the interval of the tritone, the “devil’s interval.” as it was known in history. Because of its harmonic instability, Liszt used it to take us to the depths of Hell where we could hear the wailing souls of Dante’s epic poem. The performance was riveting, not only because of the bazillion notes required in the score, but because Pandolfi built the architecture of the piece in a way that the listener could clearly follow. The middle section elicited some of the most delicate playing of the entire program.

Along with the apparent ease of playing, Pandolfi plays with an economy of motion. There is no extraneous or wasted motion even in the most virtuoso passages. One would expect the Liszt Sonata to exhaust the energy of the player, but there was plenty more to go with two encores. And, not just small pieces to close the concert, but a full paraphrase of themes from “Phantom of the Opera.” The fireworks heard earlier in the program continued through this huge work that brings to memory some of Vladimir Horowitz’s grand and pianistic transcription. The fireworks shifted to a warm closing statement in the second encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9, No. 2, played with poetic beauty.

The Distinguished Artists Series presents pianist Alon Goldstein on October 18 and The Delphi Piano Trio on November 22, in addition to further concerts in January, February and April. All performances are at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz.

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