Pianist Man-Ling Bai


By Scott MacClelland

CARMEL MUSIC SOCIETY 2016 piano competition winner made good on the solo recital that was part of Man-Ling Bai’s winnings. Sunday’s wind and rain did not deter a large turnout—the sponsoring CMS ran out of program handouts—as if fine art was an antidote to low politics.

Or so it seemed. This young artist served up an ambitious program of mostly familiar repertoire: Schumann’s Carnaval, Ravel’s La valse and the Busoni piano arrangement of the great solo violin chaconne by JS Bach. Less often heard was Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Schumann. Short bits by Nikolai Kapustin got their first hearing here.

For me, the highlight was the Ravel, an orchestral showpiece disguised in this version for piano, a reversal of that composer’s practice of orchestrating piano originals. The piece, an ironic ‘impression’ of the Viennese waltz, calls for a grandly sonorous sweep and Man-Ling Bai delivered it in 12 bristling minutes.

She took a similar approach to Busoni’s version of the Bach, but in this case the lines were often out of balance with one another; sometimes the haunting theme was lost in the welter of other sonorities. The texture was made even more turgid by the heavy use of the sustaining pedal. Still, the young artist displayed a great range of both dynamics and virtuosity, if favoring a demonstration of how you can draw tremendous sounds from a great Steinway instrument.

The program opened with the Schumann, 20 short ‘portraits’ of magical variety, in 25 minutes. But some of the fast bits were rushed at the expense of clarity of textures that blurred the lines. The pedaling was again a part of the problem. Still, the performance overall displayed authority of conception and followed a well thought-out arc. This would be complemented by the Brahms homage to his mentor, which was also intended to give comfort and emotional support to Clara Schumann, that composer’s soon-to-be widow. Brahms borrowed the theme from a sad little ‘leaf’ among Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, sounded in its original character at the beginning and again at the end, with a range of challenging variations in between. This rarely heard music was a treat under Man-Ling Bai’s hands.

To begin the second half, the artist improvised a three-minute enchantment of a theme (with chords) submitted by a member of the audience. (Indeed a teen-aged student musician!) Plainly, this young pianist brings a thoroughgoing mastery of musical form and history to her craft.

Finally, brief movements from Eight Etudes, Op 40, by Kapustin, who is Ukrainian by birth (in 1937), but you wouldn’t know it from his music, which is loaded up with such Americana as jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, stride, ragtime and cocktail-lounge entertainment. And that’s the word: this composed music is irresistibly entertaining. It brought the crowd to its feet.