Pianist Keiko Shichijo

By Scott MacClelland

IN HER REGIONAL DEBUT, in Aptos, pianist Keiko Shichijo boldly went where few of her fellow keyboard artists would dare to go. For all her personal charm, the Japan-born artist, now living in Amsterdam, played music few in the audience had heard before, by composers many had never heard of at all. The latter included Komitas, the early 20th century Armenian monk who died insane, Federico Mompou, a Barcelona native with Parisian pretensions, and Rozalie Hirs, a contemporary Dutch musician. In this company, even Debussy’s Fireworks sounded strangely out of its time and place.

Yet Shichijo’s playing bewitched. Her technical mastery could not be faulted, her confidence carried the demanding program choices and her artistry led the way. The audience response, perhaps a bit skeptical at first, confirmed these qualities. Their ‘reward’ would be Franz Schubert’s six Moments musicaux (D780) published in 1828, the year of the composer’s death at age 31.

I only became aware that Komitas (born Soghomon Soghomonyan, in 1869) had composed his six Armenian dances, c.1906-16, when I heard Shichijo play them in a private concert. They became hugely influential as a modern foundation for Armenian national music, and would be absorbed into the works of American composer Alan Hovhaness. (You can hear their influence in much of Hovhaness’ music as well as that of Aram Khatchaturian.) In Shichijo’s hands, the dances echoed Armenian speech patterns, with abrupt stops and percussive effects. The vigorous opening Yerangi established this character. Some of the dance music felt more feminine and song-like. Shshiki swung in a way that Duke Ellington would approve, and added bell tones. The heroic final dance, Shoror, the longest, moved to darkly modal melodies and rhythms.    

Shichijo explained that Mompou’s set of six pieces, collected under the name Charmes, was influenced by Gabriel Fauré and explored a wide range of moods. The second of them rested on a two-note ostinato in the left hand. The third, in A-B-A form, sounded derivative of Debussy’s La plus que lente in the A sections with an explosive B in between. The last of the six sparkled like a fountain in sunshine.

These two sets of the program’s first half were separated by Debussy’s Fireworks, a tour-de-force of demanding virtuosity for which Shichijo flared with astonishing brilliance.     

Hirs (born 1965) was represented by her Meditations (2017), four adventurous movements of quite simple construction, from rolling two-note ‘trills,’ to swirling textures (à la Debussy) and, in the final piece, slowly rising arpeggios that, in the opinion of concertgoer/flutist Gary Stott, would work well transcribed for his instrument.

Shichijo’s Schubert enjoyed an often surprisingly personal interpretive insight, further evidence of her artistic authority. These A-B-A formed works, not as often played or as popular as the composer’s impromptus, are yet as rich with melodic themes, jaunty rhythms and seeming spontaneous invention. The brief third in F Minor is a perky march, the fifth also in F Minor specifically echoes one of Beethoven’s late bagatelles (Op 126, No. 4) and the last in A-flat strongly predicts the circumspect “Eusebius” piano music of Robert Schumann.

For her performance for the Aptos Keyboard Series, at St John’s Episcopal, the artist had plainly prepared a program with extreme care and purpose. As it dazzled and seduced it also gave her listeners new things musical to think about.  

Oxana Yablonskaya

By Scott MacClelland

I DON’T REMEMBER the last time I heard a solo piano recital so dominated by artistic authority as Oxana Yablonskaya’s performance for Distinguished Artists in Santa Cruz on Sunday afternoon. To be clear, I’m referring to artistry over and above technique, personality atop a program that itself came with no unfamiliar music or surprising ‘innovations.’

When Yablonskaya first ‘escaped’ the restrictive Soviet Union to find freedom in the US in the late 1970s, Joan DeVisser, a force behind the scene at the Monterey Symphony, scooped her up immediately. After a long and successful career in this country, including a faculty position at the Juilliard School, Yablonskaya made a triumphant return to the Monterey Bay with Gluck, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Liszt at Peace United Church.

Her performance of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata in D Minor, an early masterpiece, gave every ambitious student in attendance an object lesson that transcended all the technical demands, many very difficult, to a much higher realm. Yablonskaya displayed a greater grasp of the big picture than most pianists I have heard in recent years and plumbed greater depths of expression in the close-up details. For example, in the first movement there are stretches of quiet circumspection. In them, Yablonskaya slowed the pace and used a heavy sustaining pedal that opened a window onto a whole different character of music than I have ever heard in this piece. (Olga Kern, who played Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata in Carmel in October, and of whom I count myself a fan, could do well to seek studies with Yablonskaya.) Some might question such a heavy use of sustain, but the artist stopped time and everybody knew it.

The program opened with another time-stopping moment, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” aka Melodie, from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, in a piano transcription by Giovanni Sgambati. Phrasing and weight of touch combined with a subtle circumspection of expression that drew remarkable tone and sonority from the Yamaha CFX concert grand.

Yablonskaya, like some of the all-time great interpreters, liked to approach the beginnings of the pieces she played with unexpected dynamics and phrasing, all the better. But she subjected the first of two Brahms Rhapsodies (Op 79) to a bruising opening salvo. This served to underscore the density of Brahms’ piano textures, in this case not particularly flattering. But, of course, Brahms doesn’t stay in that for long, and Yablonskaya’s survey revealed much more color, if not so much sympathy.

That all turned around with assorted nocturnes and mazurkas by Chopin, where subtlety now turned improvisational. (She included that most mysterious of all Chopin mazurkas, in A Minor, Op 17, No 4, and the boisterous B-flat, Op 7, No 1.)

Franz Liszt transcribed at least 12 hours’ worth of Schubert songs, including “Auf dem Wasser zu singer” and “Gretchen am Spinnrade” included here. Schubert would have been shocked at all the hyperpianism Liszt piled on top of these masterpieces. But if you want exaggerated pianism that calls attention to itself, Liszt is your man of choice, and in that case, Yablonskaya is the woman for the job.

This concert was one for the books and will resound in the mind’s ear for years to come.