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Pianist Joel Fan
Color and Firepower: Joel Fan at Steinway Society the Bay Area
By Gary Lemco
The 2010-2011 Steinway Society in the Bay Area season opened with an impressive display of color and firepower by way of New York pianist and acolyte of the avant-garde Joel Fan (b. 1969), who proffered diverse works by Nazareth, Villa-Lobos, Bonds, Succari, Beethoven, Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Chopin. Though the attendance at Le Petit Trianon Theatre in San Jose Saturday, September 11, 2010 failed to fill the house, those who rose unanimously at the last chords of Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata well appreciated a Herculean effort by a musical enthusiast and practitioner of the first order.
A four-part dance group began Mr. Fan’s musical tour, in which he preceded each selection with a brief discussion. Ernesto Nazareth’s Vem Ca, Branquinha (Come here, Darling) utilized samba rhythms to achieve its variegated effects, duets from various registers in the keyboard kaleidoscopically merging in the manner of a Latin Scott Joplin.
Heitor Villa-Lobos in an elegiac (modinha) mood gave us the 1925 Alma Brasiliera (the Soul of Brazil), passionate and endowed with a naturally muscular sense of melody. Chicago-born Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) found a vital place among the dance piece, her “Troubled Water” a chromatic setting of the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” rife with affectionate natural piety. The last of the miniatures, Dia Succari’s La Nuit du Destin (1978) evokes the spirit of Syrian chant and prayerful illumination. Some of the chords pointed to Ravel’s Miroirs. Mr. Fan characterized the piece as “an awakening,” affecting sounds of the lute, zither, and dulcimer, even calling for free improvisation from Fan himself. In its modal plaints, one could be quite lulled and mesmerized, if only because Fan projects himself so ardently into his renditions.
With Beethoven’s majestic and bittersweet Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 (1822) we came to the first of three major sonatas in the program. Besides Beethoven’s plangent sense of melody, we could sense the liberation of the trill as an expressive device Beethoven’s highly subjective palette, the chromatic harmony searching within the sonata-form in the manner of a dreamy wanderer. Fan jumped into the ensuing Allegro molto--coda with his typical panache and rough energy, the gavotte-like syncopes progressing to a trio in D-flat Major that moved to an uneasy F Major. The last movement conveyed Mr. Fan’s rubric of “spirituality” for the evening, an arioso dolente in something like six sections, often songful, sometimes stuttering, and culminating in a grand fugue that itself suffers an interruption from the adagio. The latter pages indulge a struggle between G Minor and G Major, whose optimistic resolution Fan realized with resonant conviction.
The Sonata No. 5 by Russian mystic Alexander Scriabin (1907) took an entirely eccentric path to the issues of tonality and musical structure, a one-movement amalgam of luminous energy and erotic glamour, extending Liszt’s sense of ecstasy and flamboyant transcendentalism, affixed to the harmonic language of both Chopin and Wagner. The gestures became convulsively grand, grandiose, grandiloquent, perhaps a bit embarrassing, as Rachmaninoff once quipped that in hearing it, he felt as if he “had been beaten with sticks.”
Schoenberg then provided an alternative to harmonic theory with his Three Pieces, Op. 11 (1909), music derived from Brahms but set atonally in extended movements that range from the somber, the tragic, to the hysterical. The ostinati of the Maessig section might have reminded us of Chopin’s E Minor Prelude, except that Schoenberg eschews those repetitions that would ground the bass in a set key. The second Maessig movement alternated huge washes of bitter sound with individual fluctuations of rhythm. The variants, for all their interior harshness, still reveal traditional aspects of dissonance and linear attempts at geometric, if not harmonic, resolution. The third Bewegt section had an even more manic tone, as if a moth had inadvertently found its way into the maelstrom. Like Yeats, we could claim “a terrible beauty is born.”
With the Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35 (1893) Fan expressed that tragic dimension so ripe in our collective experience of the day’s memory in 9-11-01. The Grave-Doppio movimento hurled a seismic energy at us, seething and volcanic. The pursuant Scherzo did not essentially lighten the spirit, its own filigree born of the “deep Romantic chasm” of tragic experience. With the B-flat Minor Funeral March we entered into the throes of melancholy, barely alleviated by the D-flat trio. In fact, that interior nostalgia only drew the bitter tears of wasted hopes. Fan had called the lat movement Presto “afterlife,” but its sarcastic winter wind could only convey a restive spirit among us all, impatient for those metaphysical answers to the Sphinx of human nature. Fan gave us one encore, a tango by Astor Piazzolla, perhaps the spirit of the dance by which Nietzsche and Yeats hoped to reconstruct Man after The Fall. ♪
Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly reviews for
Classical Music Guide. He resides in California.
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