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.