William Berry – a “young lion of the keyboard” at St.Andrew’s

WILLIAM BERRY PIANO RECITAL

(In preparation for the National Piano Competition 2022)

  • performing the following three 30-minute programmes:

Programme 1: Scriabin – Trois Etudes op. 65 Beethoven – Sonata in E major op. 109 Albeniz – Triana William Berry – On Edge

Programme 2: Haydn – Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32 Rachmaninoff – Sonata in Bb minor op. 36

Programme 3: Carl Vine – Sonata 1 Chopin – Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61

St-Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 30th January, 2022

I was invited to attend this concert merely as a listener rather than as a reviewer; but the playing of eighteen year-old William Berry, a finalist in last year’s National Competition, calls, I think, for some comment by way of appreciation of what I consider to be the young performer’s tremendous talent. The competition he’s about to take part in stipulates two thirty-minute programmes of music chosen by the pianist – so one presumes Berry will either perform two of the three thirty-minute sequences of works he presented to us this afternoon, or else rearrange the items into the desired framework, depending upon which he thought came off best in performance.

Looking at the three different programmes presented by the pianist, I thought they each provided a judiciously-balanced range of repertoire which allowed him to demonstrate his capabilities to their best advantage. The first programme began with Scriabin’s Trois Etudes Op.65, the opening study all fantasy and vertiginous impulse, featuring in particular beautifully-feathery right-handed work, the whole balancing mercurial whimsy against both abandonment and circumspect inwardness. This was followed by a long-breathed meditation, one whose notes for the most part resembled exquisite stalactite-like progressions, though the latent energies flickered tantalisingly a couple of times before returning to the piece’s essential quietitude. As for the third etude , Berry breathtakingly set the opening fleet-fingered figurations against the heavier, more insistent shouts which eventually won the day with a spectacular ascending flourish at the piece’s end.

In its own way the world of Beethoven’s Op.109 E major Sonata sounded as distinctive as Scriabin’s, the evocations of each of the movements as singular and “from the air” as those of the Russian master we heard, written almost a century later. Berry gave the opening movement the free space that both the first flowing notes and the contrasting expansive rejoiners themselves suggested, impulses which alchemically made firstly poetry and then grandeur out of motion. While I thought he risked taking the swagger out of  the march-like second movement by taking it all a shade too fast, the rushing torrent that the playing evoked suited the work’s free-spirited aspect as admirably. I was sorry the repeats in the “theme and variations” were not observed, as I felt we seemed to move more quixotically than ecstatically through some of the movement’s treasurable mood-changes (I particularly wanted to hear again that wonderful “delayed modulation” sequence in one of the variations, but had to be content with this more-than-usually austere view of things, if beautifully played. But Berry made amends with his heartfelt treatment of the contrast between the “trills” sequences and the return of the movement’s quietly ecstatic chordal opening at the sonata’s end.

How thrilling to hear a piece from Albeniz’s Iberia , the colourful and evocative Triana, with its distinctive flamenco rhythms and textures characteristic of gypsy music. Berry warmed to this music from its deceptively dainty beginnings, investing the sequences with increasing textural and colouristic girth, and arriving at the piece’s middle section with considerable relish, the trajectories readily inviting the “big tune” to dance, Berry’s sure-fingered playing beautifully augmenting the textures with all kinds of tactile harmonic clusters that distinctively and irresistibly flavour the music.

We heard one of Berry’s own compositions to conclude this part of the programme, a short but hair-raising piece entitled On Edge. The music opened flowingly at first, before entangling its lines in what seemed claustrophobic fashion, with figurations shouldering one another aside as fresh impulses sprang forth, the whole gathering itself up into a scherzando section of considerable brilliance and excitement.

A Haydn Sonata (Hob.XVI:32 in B Minor) proved an excellent choice to begin the second thirty-minute section of the recital – the opening music was delivered with wit, point and schwung, giving the dynamic and textural contrasts proper dramatic life, especially in the movement’s second subject. The composer didn’t disappoint with his development sequence, enabling us to enjoy as much as did the soloist the garrulity of the repeated figures and their burgeoning interactions. And what a heartwarming homecoming here under Berry’s fingers to conclude the movement!

An attractive Menuetto was gracefully and winsomely brought into play, the opening contrasting startlingly with a middle section that seemed to fancy itself as some kind of feisty toccata for a few measures, before returning abashedly to its former manner. Continuing its litany of surprises, the work’s finale then straightaway began a kind of “cat-and-mouse” fugue, one which drew upon ever-burgeoning reserves of energy to produce a brilliant effect via Berry’s scintillating fingerwork, ideas shouldering one another aside with freshly-wrought impulses, before surprising us all at the work’s conclusion with a nicely-timed throwaway ending!

Because of Berry’s boldly-conceived programming, I enjoyed the juxtapositioning of Haydn’s and Rachmaninov’s treatment of sonata form in this segment of the concert as much as anything I heard this afternoon. Here we were able to experience a no-holds-barred arch-romantic approach to a traditionally classical format made to work from ”within” as effectively, for me, as did Haydn’s in its own context. Interestingly, Berry chose to perform Rachmaninov’s 1913 “original” version of a work he was to extensively revise in 1931 – regarding the revision, the composer himself wrote: – “I look at some of my earlier works and see how much there is that is superfluous. Even in this Sonata so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is so long. Chopin’s Sonata lasts nineteen minutes and all has been said……” To this day pianists and commentators argue whether Rachmaninov’s alterations to the work are to its advantage, whether they eliminate unnecessary material and tighten up the structure, or whether they are a mutilation which upset the work’s formal balance and thematic argument.

My own feeling is that the first two movements are superb in their original versions, but the finale doesn’t for me sustain its overall level of creative flow to the same extent, relying over much on a certain rhetorical flamboyance which requires white heat in performance to really make work. Most astonishingly, William Berry’s passionate commitment to the cause carried us all away, riveting  our sensibilities and leaving us imbued with the music’s fervour of expression and its composer’s unique sense of a world in the turmoil of change. I loved the slow movement’s long-breathed resonances here, Rachmaninov personalising his deep identification with the ambiences he loved, those of ritual, song and music simply in the air of his native land.

The one piece across the three programmes which for me didn’t quite “fire” was in the last group, and the very last work Berry played in the concert proper, Chopin’s enigmatic Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61 – his reading here seemed almost too fluently-propelled to my ears, smoothing out some of the music’s rhythmic girth which connects with its native earth vis-à-vis the dance, and as such leaving a somewhat under-characterised impression.  I wondered whether the Chopin’s proximity to Berry’s brilliant performance of Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 1  (part of which I had previously reviewed in a concert more than a year ago – https://middle-c.org/2020/09/wellington-entrants-shape-up-for-the-national-junior-piano-competition-finals/) had resulted in the former’s more circumspect manner being somewhat over-galvanised in the slipstream of such brilliance, coruscation and crackling voltage as evoked by Vine in his Sonata and realised here by the performer.

To tumultuous applause Berry took his final bow, then returned to play us an encore, characteristically, something off the beaten track and filled with interest – it was a piece of Nikolai Medtner’s, one of his numerous skazka (translated; “fairy tales”) this one Op.20 No. 1. It wasn’t something I knew, but the piece sounded very like Rachmaninov (he and Medtner were contemporaries)……it made for a satisfying and sonorous conclusion to a wide-ranging recital.

I feel certain that everybody present would want to wish William Berry all the best in his forthcoming competition – judging by the no-holds-barred aspect of his playing for us throughout the afternoon he seems sufficiently fired up so as to give it all his best shot.

 

Ali Harper’s Circa Theatre tribute to the extraordinary Carole King

Carole King  – A Natural Woman

Ali Harper (vocals)
With Nick Granville (guitar), Scott Maynard (bass), Francis Meria (piano)
and Francis Leota (guest singer).

Producer(s) – Ali Harper, Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)
Music arrangements – Tom Rainey
Lighting, sound design and operator – Rich Tucker
Costume design – Roz Wilmott-Dalton, Ali Harper

Circa Theatre, I Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday 22nd January

If you’re like me, you’ll still have a headful of songs playing away in your cerebral jukebox which instantly bring back nostalgic memories of different eras, but in many cases have neglected the “fine detail” of actually knowing who WROTE some of these songs…….well, if that’s so, then singer Ali Harper’s latest presentation “A Natural Woman” at Circa Theatre (which opened on Saturday night) is a “must see” for you!

The music and its presentation here felt for me like a series of oceanic currents which caught me up and swept me along through music’s wider vistas, leaving me at the end somewhat dumbfounded at both the force and unexpected variety of songwriter Carole King’s creative genius. Of course I knew her name (automatically bracketing her with Jerry Goffin, her husband and writer of her song’s lyrics for almost twenty years of her career, up to 1968), and was certainly aware of her most famous recording, the album “Tapestry”, which appeared in 1971 (but which I never bought or got to know, to my great regret, being too enamoured of her friend Joni Mitchell’s music at the time). But what I didn’t grasp was the extent to which King wrote songs that other people made famous – or made other people famous!

I could go through Ali Harper’s show and pinpoint the epiphanous (both retrospective and “then-and-now”) moments, but thought I would leave such delights of belated recognition for those, like myself, who relish such things in situ apart from the ones I simply HAVE to mention! Of course, to Carole King’s fans, aware of her far-reaching and resonating influence, each song Harper presented here was a gem, to be re-exhibited and relished all over again, including several I didn’t really know, and therefore couldn’t, in perhaps the show’s most touching moment, respond to the singer’s ready invitation to “join in” with the lyrics of “You’ve got a friend”, which was also a hit for King’s colleague James Taylor in 1971. Now, had I bought that “Tapestry” LP back in the 1970s (along with those Joni Mitchell albums!) I would have been able to sing along with the rest!

Harper opened her show in atmospheric style, with a sultry rendition of the opening words of one of King’s most iconic songs “I feel the earth move” (the song that opened her “Tapestry” LP), then gradually and excitingly building up the music’s trajectories with the help of her accompanying musicians into that captivating state of physicality that’s part of her work’s whole-heartedness. Harper’s generous acknowledgements of the contributions made by pianist Francis Mena, guitarist Nick Granville and bassist Scott Maynard throughout the evening drew attention to the occasion’s celebration of musicianship per se in a way one couldn’t help feeling King herself would have very much endorsed and enjoyed.

This show largely followed the format and style of a previous Ali Harper “special” featuring the life and work of songwriter Burt Bacharach, though a significant difference was that the musical accompaniments here were generated “live”, with, midway through the show’s first half, another singer added to the vocal mix, the sweet-voiced Francis Leota, duetting with Harper in some of the numbers, and adding to the vocal support provided by the band throughout. As with Bacharach, Harper could use her subject’s songwriting output as material illustrating the latter’s lifestory; though King’s activities (however belated) as a performer of her own songs enlarged in scope the means by which her “presence” was evoked. Ali herself took over the piano for the accompaniment of one of King’s songs, “Lay Down My Life”, remarking wryly at the number’s end that it was the first occasion on which she had accompanied a song on the piano on a stage, and that she had a further 25 shows to get her fingers properly into shape before the season’s end!

Apart from the pleasures of composer-discovery in the case of a number of well-known songs, I was as intrigued by hearing a number of King’s compositions I didn’t know at all and really liked – I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt strains of “You’ve got a Friend” – and responded with, firstly, as much relish to the Joni-Mitchell-like “At this time in my life” as to the later and more confident “Natural Woman”, and then to the deeply-touching “Child of Mine”, a beautiful meditation on the significance of parenthood – all performed by Harper (the latter a vocal collaboration with Francis Leota) with a certain frisson resonating further as Harper spoke of her own admiration for King and her singular qualities of courage and determination in the face of life’s difficulties.

The show’s title “A Natural Woman” summed up this sympathetic and squarely-faced portrayal of King throughout her various career, taking in her stride significant personal highlights and setbacks, and bringing out  the heartfelt, almost confessional nature of her songwriting, and subsequently her performances. The breakup of her first marriage to Jerry Goffin was a turning-point for King, leading her reluctantly to focus on building a parallel career as a performer, to which end the release of “Tapestry” in 1971 succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, topping the US sales charts for a record-breaking fifteen weeks. In it she repossessed some of her own songs such as “It’s Too Late” and “Will you love me Tomorrow”.  And, three subsequent marriages produced altogether four children for King, here giving the song “Child of Mine” an extra fillip of emotion in its significance.

Harper’s was, for me, more of a retrospective tribute to Carole King than a re-evocation of her as an on-stage personality – I was a little surprised at this, considering the effect of her incredibly moving recreation of another icon, Doris Day, in an earlier show, in which we seemed to be taken right into Day’s world with Harper herself on that occasion seemingly infused with her subject’s charismatic persona. Here, conversely, she seemed to take pains to emphasise parallel worlds of then and now, telling us, for example, that King’s record-breaking release “Tapestry” appeared the year that she, Harper, was born. True, the dresses Harper wore (a different one for each half) seemed to me most apposite, straight from the ‘70s, and whose effect augmented those moments when in direct vocal flight the singer seemed suitably (and satisfyingly) possessed with her subject’s singular focus, one triumphantly embodied by the title given to the evening’s presentation.

Sadly, the advent of the Omicron virus would seem to already indicate a marked effect upon A Natural Woman’s season, with future shows (at time of writing) continuing to require vaccine passes and face masks, but also limiting audience numbers per performance, due to social distancing. The performances are scheduled to run until February 22nd, so people who intend to go (or have already booked) should contact Circa for updates and clarification without delay.

To Ali Harper and her colleagues, on- and off-stage, all the best for the show’s continuance under these trying circumstances! To my mind, both the material and the performances fully deserve whatever interest and attention is still possible!