Friday, July 16, 2010

Prelude to a Fugue

I want to conclude a solid week of not-blogging by shouting out Google Alerts: Being a fairly late adopter for a professionally technical person (earlier this week at work, the VP of my department got to call me out during a brown-bag session on iPhone app development for being the only computer programmer in the room without a smart phone) I hadn't paid any heed to this service before a couple of weeks ago, but I've successfully used it to set up a still-too-voluminous stream of recent web content on some work-related topics, plus a couple of personal interest. One of the latter was a test-drive sort of alert on "Shostakovich", since I like the man's music, and among a plurality of notices about mp3 downloads I learned about a recital in Portland of commingled Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues by the pianist Jenny Lin, which I hadn't heard about through my other (older, intermittent, decidedly Web 1.0) tracking of local cultural events. Kyle earned some girlfriend points by driving up to PDX early on a weeknight, we took the light rail out to the World Forestry Center next to the zoo, bought a couple of tickets at the door, and passed the time before the show started by eating tuna sandwiches on a bench outside the venue on what shaped up as a lovely, temperate summer evening. Thanks, Google Alerts!

I'm glad we caught it; Lin put together a thoughtful program, with modules of two Shostakovich prelude-fugue pairs bookending one of Bach's from the first Well-Tempered Clavier book. She has recently put out a recording of the full Shostakovich set (twenty-four of them, opus 87, from 1951) and stated up front that she primarily wanted to showcase the more modern works; Bach's music has a way of asserting its primacy in places, though. Most noticeably, she opened her set with Shostakovich's 1st prelude and fugue in C major, which sounded like the essence of purity and light until she followed it with Bach's gently arpeggiating C major prelude, in comparison to which Shostakovich's suddenly seemed like Brand X in a bleach commercial. Bach's moody C-sharp minor fugue -- whose subject is the composer's short and enigmatic-sounding B-A-C-H monogram motiv, the model for Shostakovich's own D-S-C-H motto theme -- was another highlight: Lin drew out of it a psychological murkiness that wasn't equaled in any of her Shostakovich selections, which drew more from the brighter and Bachier entries in his cycle. That's not to say that the Shostakoviches didn't hold their own within the concert, or lead to some gnarly places; Lin subtly backloaded her set with some of the less straightforward entries, including by closing the first half with a deliberate and suitably unsettling read on the brambly D-flat major fugue, augmented just a little by Miller Hall's air-conditioning system quietly rumbling on about ten bars in. She also ended her recital, maybe inevitably, with Shostakovich's epically scaled 24th prelude and fugue, which after an hour-plus of Bach and obviously Bach-influenced music sounds just enormous. In a way Lin would have more effectively ended with a weighty but smaller selection but the contrast was remarkable too. Shostakovich composed number 24 very much in his symphonic style -- in its scope and in a couple of specific gestures it's a sibling piece to the monumental, more than usually contrapuntal first movement of his tenth symphony, which he started on shortly after the preludes and fugues -- and I found myself hearing it in part as a final synthesis, and a declaration of intent to apply these fugal techniques to his established style.

Anyway, I should resolve to go to more piano recitals. Not only am I woefully unaware of a lot of the standard keyboard repertoire, but also, as with chamber music concerts, the smaller scale is a nice contrast to the professional symphony and orchestra performances I go to more often: the artists are closer, the halls are generally more intimate, the crowd is smaller and usually more dialed in to the music. (You lose the chorus effect of a big audience, too, so the guy who applauds loudly all by himself after the most moving Bach fugues or the woman who lets out an overripe, ladies-who-lunch sort of "ooooh!" at the mention of an encore by, I think, Federico Mompou become fairly prominent characters.)

One thing I'll resolve not to do is unthinkingly spring for seats directly in front of the open piano lid, at a distance of about 20 feet. The piano is a big and loud instrument, I should recall, and after the thunderous double fugue that ended the concert my ears were humming a little bit.


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