In the close and intimate space of The Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Aptos, which handed out warm and delicious apple cider, a cozy afternoon audience was treated to a world-class piano performance from Keiko Shichijo. Her repertoire was far from conventional; most of the composers weren’t household names, but still carried a substantial torch among their own people. From the pianist we heard a performance of cultural exuberance: 6 Dances by Armenian composer Komitas, Feux d’artifice by French composer Claude Debussy, Charmes by Catalan composer Frederic Mompou, Meditations by Dutch composer Rosaline Hirs, and 6 Moments Musicaux by Austrian composer Franz Schubert.
This first work might have been one of the most unconventional to begin a program with I have ever experienced. The work played with simple melodic ideas stripped bare of traditional context, and adorned with Eastern fragrances. Often melodies emerged in an angular fashion and with ample space between them. It had the gravity of early liturgical music, with its freeness of rhythm and its understated cadences. Shichijo explained before performing this piece that the composer, Komitas, is a cultural figurehead of sorts, and his music today symbolizes the tragedy of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1922. He was one of the survivors, and she noted that his music after the tragedy was marked with a ponderous tremor and an expansive melancholy.
The Debussy prelude, in contrast to the preceding work, was strikingly virtuosic. The wash of chromaticism from which the sound is born is nebulous and wavering, and upon this bed are jabbed long notes, spaced far apart from each other. What melody is found is spoken in tone clusters, and after the temperamental episode, the music ends with a murky left-hand figure underneath a reference to the Marseillaise, played in a different key. (Did I mention that “Feux d’artifice” is french for “Fireworks”?)
The piece by Mompou carried a melancholy and subdued weight similar to that of the Komitas. One can imagine in it a reflection of the grief of the Catalan people, although Shichijo didn’t make mention of it. Mompou’s composition, true to his ethnicity, reciprocates in part the Impressionistic tendencies of the French and in part the Romantic tendencies of the Spanish. Charmes, in line with this, evoked a mood that teased the ear. Mompou’s emotional expression here is whispered, but the music entertains the beauty in repetition, space, and sonorous ambiguity.
Hirs’s work was the most contemporary of them all, being published in 2017. Shichijo mentioned a beautiful image she has of this music, that the sound moves in “curves”. The piece begins with lulling tremolos, oscillating between chords. There is, moreover, a thorough exploration of the musical component of space. Much of the sound was built from notes that remain sustained, and the reverberation of the concert hall becomes an instrument along with the piano. The piece also uses Messiaen-esque chord structures. Light and airy, and in the upper register, sounding as if all of the small, metal wind chimes were played at once. Sounds, when left to speak for themselves, are rich and infinite, and this is what Hirs teaches us.
Franz Schubert seemed to be an odd choice to close off this set, and the pianist thought so as well. But at once, it also seemed to echo, faintly, the tightness and minimalism of the Komitas piece from the beginning, but under a very Viennese archetype (both my mom and I agreed that this piece sounded very German). It exhibited all the classical characteristics of the exposition-development trope, and Neapolitan chords, etc., but there was also a touch of individual essence. True to its name, this was not just a piano sonata, but musical moments. There were instances where rhythms were more rugged and melodies were shaped more whimsically — in short, it at times sounded French!, and there were also instances of pause-like, moments to gather a composure and remember the whole work. This piece, from what there’s to choose among the Schubert canon, was actually quite appropriate in that it gave another lens through which the apprehend the word “pianistic.”
We didn’t hear even one of those con fuoco, virtuosic and brilliant piano showcases that one will more readily find in the classical music community. From Keiko Shichijo, we heard a performance that demonstrated piano as an agent for art; we heard authenticity that Sunday afternoon. It was a performance I wish I could go back and hear again.