Pangea Piano Project – double the pleasure

Pangea Piano Project

Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez (pianos)

Music for Four Hands and Two Pianos by New Zealand Composers

Kenneth Young, Jack Body, Edwin Carr, John Psathas

The Hunter Concert Series (presented by the NZ School of Music)

Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday 26th May, 2011

Every concert has its own intrinsic qualities and unique merits; but this one was exceptionally memorable. I found it a life-enhancing experience, and in fact couldn’t trust myself to write a review until I’d returned to earth, somewhat. Now, with feet firmly back on the ground, I’m ready to re-savour the pleasures and excitements of what I heard and saw at the Hunter Building, on a late May evening.

The Pangea Piano Project consists of two gifted young pianists, Ya-Ting Liou from Taiwan and Blas Gonzalez from Argentina, who have joined forces to, in their own words “combine standard piano music with less conventional repertoire for solo, duet and duo”.  The duo has commissioned, premiered and recorded many works by composers from all around the world, and obviously considers the New Zealand repertoire for the piano eminently worthy of attention – in fact “wide and varied”, and characterized by “imaginative innovation”, according to the duo’s programme note.

Works by four New Zealand composers, two of whom were present at the concert, made up the evening’s music, and to my ears readily endorsed the opinions of the duo. The first half featured items for four hands at one piano, by Kenneth Young and Jack Body, while two pianos were brought into play after the interval, for music by Edwin Carr and John Psathas.

Naturally. the performers took advantage of the “composer-presence”, inviting first Ken Young and then Jack Body to speak about their respective pieces. Young’s work, entitled Variations on a Prayer, written in 2010, was inspired by both Beethoven’s and Brahms’ approach to variation form, whereby themes are not just ornamented but transformed – Young likened the process of transformation to “the struggle between faith and doubt”, speaking about how the act of prayer itself is multifaceted in a way that itself suggested variation form. The music’s meditative opening evoked spaces that seemed to encourage self-examination, with mirror-like treble-and-bass interactions. Conversely, the variations make a rhapsodic, almost quixotic impression, with canonic figurations again suggesting self-awareness, the pianists all the while expressing the differing moods beautifully with their keyboard choreographies. More agitated episodes featured a toccata-like hammering above and below intertwining linear themes, and rapid unisons imploding to form a violent waltz, the irruptions gradually lessening as the opening theme returns, beautiful and prayerful, suggesting a kind of processional towards what seems like a state of reassurance – a heartfelt and moving work.

Jack Body’s Three Rhythmics (written in 1986) was commissioned originally by the New Zealand Music Federation, but was pronounced as “too difficult” by the performers who had been assigned to the piece. Body himself ascribed the piece’s difficulties to his own youthful confidence, stressing that he was “a bit younger then”, and  admitting also that “at certain times in one’s life one feels the need to do or create something flashy”. He calls the kind of virtuosity required of the performers “mechanistic rather than Lisztian” , and observed wryly that that even the performers who subsequently tackled the work more-or-less successfully complained about its difficulties. However, he emphasized that the live performances he’s heard of the work have all produced an exhilarating effect – so that demands, after all, perhaps do bring rewards.

He would have been exhilarated all over again by this performance – right from the Stravinsky-like opening of the first movement “Drumming”, with its wonderfully jagged accents and rhythmic patterning, and with the textures spiced by occasional hand-clapping, the duo kept the pulse of the work alive and buoyant. What a change with the “Interlude” movement, in which all notions of conscious time seem to have been dissolved into a Dali-esque “melting-clocks” kind of scenario at the beginning, the duo gradually goading the “parlando” declamations back into metered divisions . And I loved the pair’s choreographic interactions during the final “Ostinato”, enacting for us in sight and sound an almost ritualistic clashing of lines over a dancing bass. We heard left and right figurations occasionally spreading themselves, fragmenting the symmetries with angular accents and dealing with the remorseless bass line as best they could, the argument breaking off boldly and abruptly by way of solving the music’s impasse. Breathtaking playing!

Edwin Carr’s suite of dances from his ballet score “Elektra” represented an earlier era of New Zealand composition, but one whose boldness, vigour and austerity seemed as “contemporary” as any of the other works. This music marked the duo’s switch to the two-piano medium, giving the concert ample variety of texture and spatial ambience. Carr’s work dates from 1955, and his time studying in Italy with composer Goffredo Petrassi, who was an advocate of the neoclassicism whose influence, thanks to the likes of Stravinsky, was very much in vogue. Carr actually took the directorship for a short period of Il Nuovo Balletto d’Italia, who performed his ballet a number of times on tour. This two-piano version of a suite of dances from the score stresses what the programmme notes describe as “vigorous rhythms, percussive piano writing, concise formal design and rugged polytonal chords”. I thought Carr’s music triumphantly spanned the centuries over which the inspiration had cast its shadow, the textures at once lean, spare, and energetic in a modern manner, but also presenting a cold, marbled finish in places that suggested an antiquity of centuries. Each of the four pieces had something of this Janus-faced aspect, the performers ringing out their tones across the two-piano vistas, and evoking a dark and compelling ambience of human interaction and emotion.

John Psathas’s work, Zeal, from 1992, concluded the concert. The work has five movements, the first, Lulling Imagination to Sleep, beginning with murmuring bass figurations that readily recall his earlier (1988) Waiting for the Aeroplane – there are similarly vast spaces conjured out of the sounds, underlined by the antiphonal placement of the pianos. The music’s ambient capacities gradually build to something of an elemental roar, before retreating as enigmatically throughout a long-breathed epilogue.The following Ghost Hunting is quixotic and fragmentary, featuring tingling exchanges between the instruments with occasional biting sforzandi, the playing by turns whispering, wailing and laughing – one senses ghosts being laid to rest. The title-movement, Zeal, features monumental, pagan-like gestures, energetic and deep-throated, the sounds breaking away and reforming, reinventing themselves in the process, and contrasting markedly with the following Amalgam, a world in which sharp angularities play jabbing, poking games of hide-and-seek in the nocturnal mists. Finally Unstoppable Forces: Immovable Objects brought forth driving, syncopated energies from the tireless pair towards tremendous, Mahlerian outpourings of tone, whose climactic moments Baz Gonzales described in his program notes as “romantic grandeur”. Like all of Psathas’s music, its direct emotional impact is the most striking immediate feature, though deeper layers of impulse driving things like the larger-scale organization of the material make for interesting explorations of one of this country’s most interesting composers.

It would seem that there is a recording of these and other works planned with the duo, for release on the excellent Waiteata Music Press label – in my book, already a sure-fire winner, judging by this remarkable concert’s music-making from the Pangea Piano Project.

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