The final performance of Piano Month in the Noontime Concerts™ recital series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral was supported in part by a grant from the Helen von Ammon Fund for Emerging Artists. The “emerging artist” being presented was nineteen-year-old pianist Hugo Kitano, currently studying at Stanford with Dr. Frederick Weldy and a former student of William Wellborn in the Preparatory Division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Kitano has won awards in competitions in North America, Europe, and Asia with a particular specialization in the music of Frédéric Chopin. Consequently, he prepared an all-Chopin program for today’s recital.
I have previously observed that Chopin tends to have been at his best when working on relatively brief durational scales. As a result, when an entire program is organized around his music, the attentive listener can detect, with little difficulty, a sense of unwieldiness as the durations get longer. The best pianists can conceal this difficulty by defining for themselves approaches to interpretation that can turn “mere duration” into some sense of a journey. However, Kitano has not yet reached this level, although he may well eventually have the chops to do so.
The result was that his best showing came at the beginning of the program with two of the short etudes in Opus 10, the tenth in A-flat major, followed by the fourth in C-sharp minor. In both cases execution was definitely more than a matter of just reading the notes. He understood how the technical demands had been couched in an elegant phrase structure, and he commanded a small but capable set of nuanced gestures to delimit those phrases. One could not have asked for more from his approach to both of these etudes.
When it came to the dances, however, things started to get more problematic. Each dance form is somewhat like a stock character in a drama, and one of Chopin’s talents involved the ability to “flesh out” such a stock character into a more individual personality. The skillful pianist must therefore recognize both the general type and the distinguishing individual traits.
As I recently observed, general type is frequently established by rhythm. This is not just a matter of how many beats there are in each measure. It also involves stress relations that are patterned but not always straightforward. Thus, while both the waltz and the mazurka divide the measure into three beats, they distribute stress across the measure in different ways. Similarly, the polonaise has three beats to the measure; but in this case stress is apportioned according to how each beat is subdivided. Because Kitano had not yet really internalized the nature of these generalizing differences, there was a sameness in his performance of each of these dance forms that obscured both general type and those more distinguishing features of “personality.”
His nocturne performance (Opus 55, Number 2 in E-flat major) and the Opus 60 barcarolle were similarly disappointing. These are both ternary form compositions with sharply contrasting middle sections. Because the overall mood of the outer sections is not that different in these two pieces, it is the nature of contrast that breathes life into each of them. Consequently, these were perfect examples of why finely-crafted technical skill can never be enough where Chopin is concerned.
One can only hope that, with all of his award credentials, Kitano will, with further study, eventually refine his capacities for both awareness and execution, in which case he may still emerge as a leading Chopin performer.