I do not know if today’s Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital by pianist Robert Auler provided the first performance in San Francisco of music by Jonathan Pieslak; but the occasion was definitely a “first contact” moment for me. Auler and Pieslak were fellow students at the University of Michigan; so there was at least a moderate chance that the experience would be a well-informed one. Nevertheless, when Auler introduced the piece as being only four minutes long, explaining that both of them were part of the MTV Generation, it was hard to resist a Spock-style elevation of the left eyebrow.
Pieslak’s solo piano composition was entitled “Spiral.” Auler suggested that the music was inspired by mathematics. Whether this involved logarithmic spirals and golden ratios or the more elaborate self-replicating structures of fractal geometry, he did not say. The fact is that the notes played out with such an intense density that any signs of ratios or replications could probably only be detected on the score pages. On the other hand there was a bold bass line with an intriguingly arrhythmic approach to its pulses, which could well be associated with the fact that the golden ratio (in contradiction to its name) can only be represented by an irrational number. (Two pulses of durations whose proportion can only be represented by an irrational number can never come into alignment more than once.)
Ironically, “Spiral” was the only piece on the program whose bass line was given a suitably solid account by Auler (even if its structure had more to do with metric ratios than with any tonal center). This did not serve any of the other composers on the program, all of whom had their own characteristic approaches to working with tonality, very well. These were (in the order of their appearance) Felix Mendelssohn (the Opus 54 “Variations sérieuses”), Franz Schubert (the G-flat major impromptu from the D. 899 set of four), Ludwig van Beethoven (the Opus 81a “Les Adieux” sonata in E-flat major), and Enrique Granados (“Allegro de concierto”).
Each of these pieces demanded a fair share of rapid-fire execution; and this seemed to be Auler’s specialty. The problem was that each of the composers conceived of all of those notes in terms of their capacity for embellishment; and, more often than not, the bass line provided the foundation for what was being embellished. One might generously say that there was something transcendent about Auler’s technique, but it was a transcendence that rose so high above the structural foundations as to leave the composer’s sense of architecture lost in the dust. Furthermore, his firing skills were not always particularly accurate, recalling the “spray and pray” style of execution that was so sadly on display when Khatia Buniatishvili made her San Francisco recital debut this past April.
Auler’s biographical statement describes him as “a keen advocate of new music.” That advocacy may be his comfort zone. Perhaps he should focus on cultivating it that way, particularly since we need more advocates who can bring his level of enthusiasm to what they play.