A Penchant for the Moderns: Pianist Gabriela Martinez in Concert

As though serving as a foil for the oft-percussive, even “symphonic” sonority of several of her chosen compositions, pianist Gabriela Martinez concluded her Sunday, April 15 recital at Le Petit Trianon Theatre for the Steinway Society the Bay Area with the sweet, salon Romance in E-flat Major, Op. 44, No. 1 by Anton Rubinstein. Some of us elder auditors could recall that Frank Sinatra sang the melody version of the piece as “If You are but a Dream.” Ms. Martinez, however, seemed less concerned with performing “standard” repertory as much as inviting us to hear both old and new wine in new bottles. She opened with the Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33 of Beethoven, his so-called Kleinigkeiten, of 1802-03.

Each of these apparent miniatures becomes quite capable — typical of the composer –of exploding into a world of personal, demonic energy, or anguished nostalgia. Concise, but rife with humor and harmonic audacity, these kernels indicate much of Beethoven’s creative modus operandi. The E-flat opener had grace peppered with appoggiaturas and passing ornaments. The Scherzo in C had us guessing that ¾ meant to be its real meter, especially when the shifts to A Minor occur. The Allegretto was played with the seeds of sonata-allegro development, and oscillated between the tonalities of F and D. The short Andante no less toyed with major and minor on A. The C Major Allegro proffered another scherzo, shrewd in its manipulation of the hands in competing triplets and trills. Quite brief, the Allegretto quasi andante in C asks for a parlando or speaking effect, lyrical but terse. The last of the set had us aroused: a Presto in A-flat, the piece plays games with arpeggios and pedal effects. The tremolos and sudden gradations of dynamics rather point to the Eroica third movement, but two years away. Martinez made the journey sly, fun, and far from easy.

Prior to the more familiar Granados piece into which she segued, Martinez introduced us to a 2014 keyboard work she had commissioned, the Amplified Soul by Chicago composer Dan Visconti (b. 1982). The music may take as its inspiration Medieval music and church architecture, but its syntax capitalizes on the repetitions we know from John Adams and his ilk, with riffs and chords from the full diapason of the piano. The chime effects soon bloomed into something like a liquid chorale; and, given, its selective dynamic shades, it could be said to look to Debussy’s Sunken cathedral as a model. In her brief verbal exposition of the Granados Goyescas, Op. 11 (1909-14), Ms. Martinez explained the ballad El amor y la muerte as indicative of the composer’s sensibility, which easily relates to Tristan and Isolde or even to The Song of Songs. The work is one of several caprichos, inspired by the composer’s fascination with the painter Goya. The cruel mixture of longing and passion, intensity and despair, nostalgia and the sense of inexorable loss, all contribute to the startling unity of effect – with direct quotes from “Flattery” and “The Maiden and the Nightingale” – in this piece. Granados claimed that the two books of pieces do testify to the main idea, that love and death remain inseparable.

The relatively concise second half began with three of Adam Schoenberg’s Picture Etudes (2013), based on the composer’s (b. 1980) reactions to works of van Gogh, Miro, and Bloch. The Three Pierrots projected a manic dimension, angular and percussive. The chordal progression headed downward, a descent into the maelstrom. The Miro’s World and the van Gogh (“Olive Orchard) assumed a relative quietude, exploiting upper registers in liquid motion, and the melodic element seemed to anticipate or mimic cante jondo (“deep song”) in Spanish music, which was soon forthcoming.  Certainly, as contemporary etudes tableaux these pieces favorably impressed many listeners, who had embraced this pianist’s desire to explore new directions.

Two Latin works concluded Martinez’s program: La Comparsa by Ernesto Lecuona and Danzas Argetinas, Op. 2 of Alberto Ginastera.  Lecuona’s work derives from his Danzas Afro-Cubanos, marked by syncopated drum rhythms. Following Debussy’s Fetes, the percussive piece follows a procession of dancers who approach from far away and pass in striking colors.  Whether the piece conforms to the bolero or the habanera becomes uncertain, but its motor vitality never came into question. The Ginastera dances (1937) capitalize on folk tunes of Argentina, along with culture stereotypes that the music can imitate or mock. Danza del viejo boyero played white notes versus black notes in the depiction of an old herdsman. The ensuing Danza da la moza donosa invested grace and modesty into a portrait of a lovely woman. The sense of longing expands the rich harmonic, even voluptuous, texture of the piece. Last, a sure-fire toccata, Furioso, meant to bring down the house: Danza del gaucho matrero, an arrogant, South American cowboy, likely whom Robert Taylor captured in The Savage Pampas. Martinez had her Steinway ringing and reeling in lofty, hyperbolic sounds, a symphonic movement for the keyboard that brought the delighted Steinway audience to its collective feet.

End

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