American Pianists Awards Discovery Week

Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, Indianapolis, IN; April 6, 2017; Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, IN; April 7, 2017—The American Pianists Association’s Discovery Week marks the culmination of a seven-month period during which five selected finalists participated in concerts and community outreach events. The finalists have convened this week for the competition’s home stretch, so to speak, displaying their talents in a variety of collaborative concert settings.

I arrived in Indianapolis on April 6, just in time for a superb vocal recital with soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Andrew Garland. In his program introduction, APA’s President, CEO, and Artistic Director Joel Harrison explained that he selected the repertoire for both stylistic variety and pianistic interest. As a consequence, one could not help but focus on the piano parts and how each of the five pianists approached their respective tasks.

Of course it helped to have such seasoned and communicative singers on hand. Jessica Rivera’s seamless, beautifully rounded timbre and unerring diction imbued Debussy’s sometimes elusive Ariettes oubliée with shape and meaning, while Henry Cramer’s full-bodied, exquisitely nuanced support made its presence felt without overpowering the singer, even with the piano lid open at full stick (as it was throughout the evening).

Three selections from Steven Mark Kohn’s American Folk Set brought Andrew Garland’s narrative gifts into ebullient focus in the lengthy Hell in Texas and the rather bland opening number Ten Thousand Miles. By contrast, the composer’s simpler, more concentrated setting of Poor Wayfaring Stranger holds far greater harmonic interest and elicited Drew Peterson’s finest and most idiomatic playing in the group.

Rivera returned for three songs with German texts. Her deftly offhand treatment of Schubert’s Die Forelle was complemented by Sam Hong’s pinpointed clarity and precision: every inner line and chord balance had a specific expressive purpose. While both singer and pianist made the best possible case for Robert Spano’s Sokrates und Alcibiades and An die Parzen, the songs themselves go in one ear and out the other, ambling through the fields of early Webern and Pfitzner without leaving a memorable trace.

Garland’s flexible vocal heft and proudly rolled “r”s brought vivid authority to excerpts from Vaughan Williams. However, Alex Beyer’s handling of the piano parts seemed more soloistic than supportive. One telltale sign concerned his occasional rushing of crescendos meant to unfold steadily. A more synergistic collaborative aesthetic transpired in Rivera’s brilliantly characterized selections from Barber’s Hermit Songs, enlivened by Steven Lin’s effortless and sharply detailed handling of the difficult piano writing, especially in those relentlessly fast interval leaps throughout The Praises of God.

Rivera began The Monk and his Cat with wrong words, but she started the song again, and the subtly shifting assymetric rhythms liltingly locked into place. Lin enveloped Rivera’s gorgeously sustained legato in The Desire for Hermitage in a haunting haze of textural layering that may have been the concert’s magic moment. For the encore, Joel Harrison took over the keyboard as Rivera and Garland playfully sparred in “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.

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Daily afternoon concerts held at Christ Church Cathedral this week showcased each contender in a piano quintet repertoire staple with the Pacifica Quartet, preceded by solo selections. Friday’s concert featured Alex Byer, who opened with a fastidious and sophisticated account of Haydn’s C minor Sonata Hob. XVI 20. Dynamics and voicings were calibrated to a high degree, not to mention the staggering poise and evenness of Byer’s fast unison runs, even if he arguably underplayed the Moderato’s inherent Sturm und Drang. By contrast, high drama abounded throughout Brahms’ F minor Piano Quintet in a performance distinguished by controlled virtuosity on all levels, intelligently scaled dynamics and proportioned climaxes, plus astute attention to color and timing of transitions.

The Scherzo began at a whisper and unfolded in long arcs that generated tension through careful dynamic gradations and a firm yet never rigid grasp of the insistent rhythms. The Finale stood out for the organic give and take between Byer and the Pacifica Quartet members, and in the manner that their collectively high-wire virtuosity in the coda drew attention to the music rather than the performers. Their triumphant fusion of heart and finesse led to a well-deserved standing ovation.