Gao Ping’s winning presentation of Debussy, New Zealand and east Asian piano music

Gao Ping – piano (Wellington Chamber Music)

Debussy: Book II of Images for piano and L’Île joyeuse; Jack Body: Five melodies for piano; Eve de Castro Robinson: And the garden was full of voices; Gao Ping: Outside the window; Takemitsu: Rain Tree Sketch and Rain Tree Sketch II

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 11 September, 3pm

The first thing to remark is the unfortunate clash between this concert and that in the Michael Fowler Centre by the Vector Wellington Orchestra with pianist Diedre Irons. But in addition to that, there was a concert by the Wellington Community Choir next door, in the Town Hall main auditorium.

Though there were only two pieces, both by Debussy, that could be regarded as standard repertoire, the audience was nearly as large as at most other recent recitals, though that is rather fewer than was usual a few years ago.

There were two works by New Zealand composers.

Gao Ping introduced Jack Body’s Five Melodies for Piano by describing his first contact with the composer in Chengdu, not in person, but through a music tape that he’d left during a visit. He was moved and impressed and spoke warmly about Body, who was in the audience; it was an engaging way of putting the audience in a positive, receptive state of mind. Working the inside of the piano was novel forty years ago; now, there should be reason other than the novelty of a sound that’s distorted from its normal character. Happily, Gao Ping’s manner and his clear enjoyment of the music, its memorable riffs and motifs and drones, the muted strings produced by his left hand helped to make the pieces sound almost standard repertoire, familiar, even congenial. And, in the third piece, the stopping of partials on the piano strings to produce harmonics, and the plain comfortableness of his demeanor at the piano, as awkward as it often looks to be leaning sideways across the keyboard to do things that the instrument’s inventors never dreamed of (they might have said – why not use a harp? or lute? or theorbo? or guitar?)

Eve de Castro Robinson’s And the Garden was full of Voices is a three-part work evoking, with success, the sounds of birds in a garden inspired by a line in a Bill Manhire poem (with contribution from pianist Barry Margan). The composer still finds the need to manipulate the strings of the piano with the hands, but she also uses techniques that have become fashionable a generation after the body-contorting, piano-interior fashion: the integration of the pianist’s voice in the texture. In the second section, ‘Moon darkened by song’, the pianist resumed his seat and treated the instrument conventionally, with a prayerful gesture and two sharp claps from raised hands, bringing it to an end. Especially dramatic in the third section, ‘The ancient chants are echoes of death’, was the dark throbbing, the heavy beat, and the echoes of death evoked from the extreme ends of the keyboard. It made music that expressed both visual and unusual emotional perceptions.

Gao Ping, who seems at least a fairly permanent New Zealand resident, introduced his own piece Outside the window engagingly, recalling the childhood sense of a different – more real or more distant – world outside, and the music was now speaking in a language that offered more familiar resonances.

The first movement (of four, ‘On the way’) suggested a certain Janáček flavour (am I subject to suggestion, partly by the similar subject/title On an overgrown path?), at times touches of jazz, in its rhythms and melodic finger-prints. ‘Chorus of Fire Worms’ was a surprising avian evocation; Debussy was inevitably nearby in ‘Clouds’ (Nuages?), though I was not really reminded of clouds, unless they were of the fast-forward kind. The girls dancing on rubber bands (iv) was a flight of the imagination which Jack Body’s sound-world might have had some influence on.

Gao Ping again diverted us with a story related by Takemitsu: after the devastation and deprivation of the post-war, he had no piano and wandered the streets knocking on doors where he heard a piano, to ask whether he could play for 15 minutes; 40 years later he was greeted, at a concert, by one of his piano benefactors. The two Rain Tree Sketches are among his more popular pieces, not reflecting a particularly Japanese character but impressing with their coherent and confident musical substance and Gao’s playing seemed somehow to incarnate the composer himself, who has always seemed to me a man of warmth and deep humanity – like Gao Ping.

The three pieces of Debussy’s Images Book II, not the best known of his piano pieces, was a clever way to induct the audience into the climate and landscape of the New Zealand and East Asian music in the rest of the concert. The bells of No 1 were sounded in disembodied abstraction; another essential quality of Debussy’s piano music lay in the black-and-whiteness character that’s suggested by the second part – ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ – the coldness of the moon, static harmonies, stillness. ‘Poissons d’or’ is the most familiar of the three, quite formidable in its spirit in spite of the shimmering dance rhythm that portrays the golden fishes whose flashing movements became quite corporeal and substantial; yet all the time, firmly rooted in the black and white piano keys. Gao Ping’s unobtrusive virtuosity illuminated them all.

And so it was fitting to return to Debussy at the end with his brilliant hail of notes that bespangle the glittering and very difficult L’Ile joyeuse; Gao Ping gave it strong pulse and danced excitedly through it with an almost visceral joyousness.

The encore was what Gao Ping called a vocalizing-pianist piece, written by him to a poem, “perhaps-song of burial”, by Wen Yi-duo. Again, the role of the pianist’s voice complemented his piano-playing; it lamented the death of the poet’s daughter, sustained by a steady rhythm throughout in rolling motifs in the left hand. Whether the words expressed profound grief or a more metaphysical emotion one knew not, but the music seemed to express a calm stoicism rather than unrestrained distress; it was no doubt all the more impressive and moving as a result.

With each of these various composers, Gao Ping, demonstrated an intuitive awareness of the music’s essence, and a refinement, enlivened by virtuosity that was always at the service of the music.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski (who was a guest at Victoria University a few years ago) said: “Gao Ping is one of a new generation that is breathing new life into the classical tradition. An evening with Gao Ping’s music is a true adventure!”

I couldn’t put it better. It was his music, in particular, this afternoon that seemed to me to point in a most fruitful, human, and optimistic direction for the future of ‘classical’ music that will again succeed in reaching out to the large audiences it enjoyed a century ago.

Another snippet.

He was asked in an interview posted on his website how he would define ‘interpreting’. His answer: “In terms of performing? Well, it is a vague word. I prefer ‘recreating’. Playing a Beethoven sonata is to recreate something, not really an interpretation because interpretation seems to suggest ‘explaining’, which is not what one can do with Beethoven sonatas performing it.”

Just one of many tendentious, pretentious words beloved of critics that have always made me uneasy, even though I’ve been guilty occasionally.

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