By Richard Lynde
High-energy pianist Adam Marks fairly crackled on the keys at his solo recital at Peace United Church of Santa Cruz on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 16, in the third event of this season’s Distinguished Artists Concert Series. Director John Orlando foretold this result by the 30ish artist who is also a skilled music educator and raconteur. Rather than playing from memory or using a big score, Marks’ dynamic presence on the bench was fortified with an iPad on the music rack, pages flipped via a pedal. This Silicon Valley conceit was actually a distraction to those of us who could see him staring ahead at the tiny space for so many notes. While the entire performance was brilliant, always technically and usually artistically, audience contact was diminished.
To be fair, Marks did say that this was his first “big piece” recital in a couple of years. At first, the sequence of play seemed odd: Beethoven, Prokofiev, JS Bach and contemporary American superstar Kevin Puts. However, there was good reason for the time-warp lineup, as Puts’ piece would confront the essence of each earlier work. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor from 1801, which he called a “Fantasy,” opens with a groundbreaking slow movement, later named “Moonlight” and now the best-known piano piece in the world. Marks played this Adagio with an effective uptick so as to avoid dragging. An overall excellence of architecture and sound made the very moon rise and fall effectively. The middle Allegretto, too often done as a weak minuet, Marks played as a joyous, forceful peasant dance, and the final Presto agitato was perfectly controlled fury.
Prokofiev’s difficult Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29 from 1917 also was ‘a new sound for the times.’ Gone was the lush 19th century romanticism carried over by Rachmaninoff. Right away pianist Marks did a fine job in the playful and persuasive open Allegro, while the following Andante, the only unjelled section of the whole recital, was followed by an electric Allegro, played with great “brio” and “not lightly,” as the scored indicated, with melodies fleeting through arpeggiated chords and runs. Bang! was the huge ending that made the big Yamaha ring. (Like all who have played this amazing “power steering” instrument, Marks gave it heartfelt praise as a “privilege” to play upon.)
During his lifetime, Bach became the “human synthesizer” of Western music, best known for his religious works. But we heard his very secular and charming French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816, one of many. For its special sequence of Baroque dances Marks rightly played their repeats, emphasizing that “Dance repetition is how we move” through life. All had good tone and color as well as crystal-clear accuracy, starting with a Courante, as fast and light as a breeze; then a stately Sarabande, with many keyboard turns; a very French Gavotte; a quick and lively Bourée followed by a Loure with lots of quick runs; and a concluding jumping jack-flash Gigue at tremendous speed—a super conclusion to the pianist’s super technique.
Though hailing from the San Jose area originally, Adam Marks now resides in Brooklyn and teaches in New York, almost a neighbor to the 42-year-old Kevin Puts in Yonkers. Puts played solo in his own Piano Concerto in a past Cabrillo Festival. Last year his opera, Silent Night, won the Pulitzer Prize. On this recital, Puts’ Alternating Currents gave every consecutive measure a different beat, a truly live-wire electric feel, which Marks, in this his first public performance, plugged into effortlessly. L’energico (a little too fast), a funny takeoff on Bach, ends abruptly; Il Deliberato successfully confronts the slow Beethoven of the “Moonlight” sonata’s first movement; Electric (as in Walt Whitman’s poem “I sing the body electric”) exploded under Marks’ hands as a wild piece, “turned on” with huge staccatos, blended melodies and swift runs, Puts’ take off on Prokofiev’s own Toccata abounding in a truly electric rhythmic vitality. The audience gave a loud standing ovation during two curtain calls, hoping for an encore. There was none, as this unusual and largely successful program was self-contained.
Now a challenge to Adam Marks: come back next year and play this program without an iPad in place of the much desired audience connectivity. And plug in with your own hands an encore, both humorous and sublime, an invention that takes main themes from all four composers and fuses them into an electric eclectic original whose brilliance lights up an acoustic keyboard. Based on what we heard here, if anyone can pull this off, you can.