It was virtually a full house yesterday afternoon when Man-Ling Bai, the Carmel Music Society’s 2016 Piano Competition winner, returned to Sunset Center to play a full recital as a part of the Grand Prize award she received the previous year. The ground floor orchestra seats were packed, the balcony was almost half full, and the ushers ran out of printed programs and were asking the last arriving people to share programs. It was a lively and unusual audience with many young piano students and new people we do not usually see at CMS concerts. If filling the seats and attracting a new audience is one of the most important goals of any presenting society, then this concert was a very special success indeed.
Ms. Bai launched the first half of the afternoon’s program with two demanding works — Schumann’s well-known Carnival, Op. 9, and the less familiar Brahms 16 Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9. In these performances we heard a young artist very much at ease with herself and with a technical virtuosity equal to the demands of any work in the piano repertoire. We also heard lots of expressive playing with commanding rich tone, elegant shaping of phrases and a natural sense of how to use cantabile and rubato to excellent effect. If there was any aspect of her playing that tended to reduce its effectiveness, it was the tendency toward excessive speed in faster sections — sort of like riding on Japan’s new Super Komachi Bullet Train at 300 mph, making it difficult to enjoy the details of the scenery passing by. If at the end of the first half of the program, the audience was noticeably cool in its response to her playing, it was possibly because we were a bit numb from our “bullet train” ride.
However, the second half of the recital warmed us up, and by its conclusion people were on their feet bursting with applause, whistles and bravos. Ms. Bai had arranged with the Carmel Music Society to ask members of the audience to submit themes on which she would improvise. Eight people, all with some degree of musical expertise, submitted brief themes of three or four measures written out in musical notation. At the beginning of the second half Peter Thorp, Co-President of the Carmel Music Society, came out on stage with Ms. Bai carrying a small basket containing the themes. Ms. Bai reached in and selected one. It turned out to have been written by Jordi Faxon, a 14-year old local high school student, who is a serious piano student and also plays violin in the Youth Music Monterey County Honors Orchestra. Bai played Faxon’s jaunty theme and then did a three-minute improvisation that was clever in the way it preserved the character of Faxon’s theme while transforming and embellishing it. This was fun to observe, and I hope in the future we will have more pianists who might adopt this practice.
Because its original orchestra version composed in 1920 is rich in colors and effects difficult to produce on the piano, Ravel’s La Valse in its solo piano version is a problematic work. Ravel also created a two-piano version for demonstration to Sergei Diaghiliev for possible performance by the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo. Diaghilev’s obvious dislike for the score resulted in such a falling out between Ravel and Diaghilev they almost had a duel and never spoke to each other again. The solo piano version from 1920 is so difficult and uncomfortable to play that it lay slumbering and unloved until Leonard Pennario (a frequent piano soloist with the Monterey Symphony in the 1960s and 70s) recorded it for Capitol Records in 1960 — it was considered an amazing accomplishment at the time. Today, young pianists take the solo version in stride and manage to convince us that it is no bother at all to toss it off effortlessly. Yesterday afternoon we witnessed this kind of facile performance that made the work sound difficult, but look easy. All the colors and grand sweeping gestures were there, and it didn’t sound labored.
Next on the program we heard the Bach Chaconne in the Busoni arrangement. This arrangement is a very special work, a creation that grew out of the original version for unaccompanied violin, and so transformed it magically and majestically that it ranks as one of the ten greatest works ever written for piano solo. Bai gave us an extroverted version that allowed the virtuosity to reveal itself, yet still managed to give us moments of tender serenity. Especially effective was the way she wound down the tension and emotion in the final three pages, which resulted in a deeply satisfying ending.
Bai concluded the concert with two Concert Etudes by Nikolai Kapustin. The first was a pounding study in jazz rhythms, and the second was an Art Tatum type of dazzling display of lots of notes, but they were totally absorbing and satisfying. The tumultuous applause and bravos encouraged her to play one more Kapustin Etude as an encore. What we have to say after hearing Man-Ling play these etudes is that we couldn’t imagine them played any better.
It has been a pleasure through the years to observe the Carmel Music Society’s competition. Not only is it an exciting gladiatorial event to witness, but it also continues to produce exciting young artists, and Man-Ling Bai is one of the best.