This is not a review.

Last night, I went to hear Hung-Kuan Chen perform. I’d read about how he’d suffered a hand injury and, through qi gong meditation and research, had coaxed both his body and his mind back into the concert hall. I’d read that he’d returned a transformed artist. So I was curious to hear him play.

This isn’t an official review, though, because as much as definitions of conflict of interest have expanded, I’m just not going to review concerts that are presented by the organization I work for. It’s more of a spontaneous reaction, I guess.

One audience member said, “He levitates his hands over the keyboard, and music comes out.” I couldn’t help noticing, though, how he works his jaw when he plays, as though he had a giant caramel in his mouth that he couldn’t quite chew and that wouldn’t quite melt. Maybe I’m primed to notice that kind of thing, since I had a piano teacher that would always notice when I was clenching my jaw. Which happened a lot.

The Chopin nocturnes (Op. 62) were beautiful: a liquid sound, full of clarity and grace.

So my expectations were high. But Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit wandered, and I couldn’t figure out where. Especially the first movement. I love that piece, and I couldn’t stay engaged. I’ve never heard Le Gibet played so slowly: the gallows looming, looming, until someone sitting near me started to snore. It was a gentle snore, not a bone-rattler, but still. The textures, the detail – those were marvelous. I talked to someone who pointed out that he actually played the rhythm at the opening of the Ravel, that rapid Spanish dance that usually just gets swept into a wash of sound. But the long lines, the sweep, the drama – those were missing. And I really did miss them.

But the Scriabin! What a great pairing the Fifth Sonata makes with the Ravel. Excellent programming move. Again, virtuosic clarity and detail. But the understatement that left me cold in the Ravel was perfect for the Scriabin sonata. The rest of the audience seemed to agree with me: they applauded with fervor.

And then it was intermission. And I was exhausted, and I had already spent over twelve hours that day in that one building, and I went home. So I can’t tell you what I thought of the Liszt. I heard it was a hit, though, which I’m glad for. Chen’s interpretations might not be for everyone, but he can really play.

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