This was undoubtedly the most engaging recital I have ever attended in Santa Cruz, and it could possibly be my favorite piano recital of all time! So naturally the question was why did James D’Leon’s performance resonate so strongly? In part it was because not only was he a supreme artist but he was such an engaging speaker, introducing each piece by referencing what was going on in the composer’s life when the seed was planted which germinated and blossomed into each particular composition.
The program began with Franck’s Prelude, Fugue & Variation, which reflects the composer’s estrangement from his father resulting in him being a rather solitary figure as seen in the lyrical, somewhat wistful prelude, but progresses to his full blown anger in the fugue. D’Leon told the story of what is behind each piece and then went on to play a selection of pieces all of which would be a show stopper in any recital, or perhaps a stunning encore, but here D’Leon played an entire recital of such pieces. The concert was much longer than usual, almost two and a half hours in length, yet I was not conscious of any lessening of intensity or fatigue coming in to play. But nevertheless I was disappointed to see that two pieces listed on the program were not performed, Für Alina by Arvo Pärt and Keith Jarrett’s version of “Danny Boy” simply because I’d have loved to see what D’Leon would bring to two of my favorite works.
D’Leon’s range of expression was formidable and his versatility was remarkable — from the pounding visceral energy in Rzewski’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” the “Southern Lament” by English composer Stephen Montague with its extended technique of banjo strumming and pounding locomotive, to an introspective version of Bill Evans’ “When I fall in Love” made all the more poignant when the tragic story of Bill Evans’ inner demons resulting in his early death is taken into consideration. The concert ended with Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino, a loving tribute to his father.
Liszt, that supreme showman who single handedly transformed the role of the concert pianist performing for friends in a home environment into a business venture, selling out opera houses to swooning adoring women patrons, was represented on the program by the Second Ballade, one of the most virtuosic pieces in piano literature. Here the finesse of the Yamaha CFX grand piano was heard to its best advantage, it’s clarity and range of tone being outstanding. It was the first Yamaha CFX concert grand piano to be brought west of the Mississippi River.
D’Leon’s range of expression is mesmerizing, his physical movements convey the deepest emotions and at the end of every piece I found myself riveted, taking in every last gesture. D’Leon first played in this series five years ago and John Orlando was urged to bring him back by those who were fortunate enough to hear that concert. How long do we have to wait for another return?