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Pianist Thomas Schultz combines the avant-garde with the nineteenth century

Pianist Thomas Schultz
Pianist Thomas Schultz
from his Web site

Yesterday afternoon the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church hosted a return recital by pianist Thomas Schultz. Once again, Schultz used his program to champion the music of Hyo-shin Na. Born in Korea, Na came to the United States for graduate studies, which culminated in a doctorate from the University of Colorado. She moved to San Francisco in 1988, where she had her first serious encounters with the avant-garde through composers such as John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Frederic Rzewski. She has emerged as a composer of eclectic interests, drawing inspirations from a wide diversity of sources extending beyond her native Korea and her encounters with American modernism.

Schultz performed two of Na’s compositions, one on each half of his program and for both of which he had given the premiere performance. The first of these, “Near and Dear,” was conceived as a wedding present and consisted of three short movements. Schultz first performed it at Bargemusic in New York in September of 2012. The music had a meditative stillness, which probably reflected Korean influences but also showed signs of the ways in which Asian sources had influenced some of Cage’s earlier piano works. For many in the audience this would have been a “first encounter;” and Schultz succeeded in making the introduction a sympathetic one.

In the second half of the program, he performed the more extended “Walking, Walking.” Like “Sea Wind,” which Schultz performed at his 2011 Old First Concerts recital, this is a fantasy on a song by Victor Jara, a Chilean poet and supporter of Salvador Allende. Jara was one of the many executed after Allende was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet (with a little held from some “friends north of the border”). Na’s music reflects the exploratory nature of Jara’s poem, perhaps also suggesting how often discovery punctuates monotony. Thus, the score tends to establish certain persistent patterns, each of which is broken in own unique way, often involving striking shifts across the different registers of the keyboard. Schultz has been performing this piece since he premiered it at Carnegie Hall in May of 2004. There was clearly both affection and understanding in his interpretation; and, sitting in the audience, the composer certainly seemed to enjoy how her score had been interpreted.

Each of Na’s compositions was coupled with one of the movements from Rzewski’s North American Ballads collection. “Near and Dear” was followed by “Down By the Riverside,” which demonstrated that the chorale prelude technique that served Johann Sebastian Bach so well could be applied to gospel as effectively as to Lutheran hymns. “Walking, Walking,” on the other hand, was followed by “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Just as Na’s piece was more extended in nature, Rzewski’s setting was more of a richly prolonged tone poem than a chorale prelude. The original song (which may have first been sung by Lead Belly) dates back to the folk songs created to promote the need for labor unions, concentrating on the almost inhuman working conditions at a cotton mill in Winnsboro, South Carolina. Rzewski’s score weaves a thick texture rich with tone clusters that evokes the fully hazardous nature of the mill machinery, and the song itself emerges very gradually out of the infernal dissonance Rzewski has summoned. Schultz gave a convincing account of Rzewski’s rhetoric (even if his remarks claimed that the cotton mill was located in New England).

Equally interesting was that each Na piece was preceded by a composition by Frédéric Chopin. “Near and Dear” was “introduced” by the Opus 49 F minor fantasy. Like “Near and Dear,” this was a relatively short composition. However, Schultz gave it a rather heavy-handed account, almost as it he wished to establish a strong contrast with the nuances that Na captured in her own three brief movements. Similarly, the more extended “Walking, Walking” was preceded by the Opus 23 ballade in G minor, one of Chopin’s more successful efforts in working with longer durations. Unfortunately, Schultz did not do Chopin many favors in his interpretation; and some of the passages were downright sloppy. Schultz made it clear that his preferences tended more to Na and Rzewski than to Chopin, but it was less clear why he wished to announce those preferences so blatantly.

Somewhat more successful was his opening selection, the second of the three piano pieces listed as number 946 in Otto Erich Deutsch’s thematic catalog of the music of Franz Schubert. Deutsch actually lists this entry as “Three Impromptus;” and, since the manuscript was written only in pencil, it may have been a work-in-progress, possibly continuing ideas that had been pursued in the two earlier collections of four impromptus (D. 899 and D. 935). Schultz’ selection involved a relatively extended journey through a variety of sharply contrasting rhetorical stances, perhaps intended to set the mood for Na’s own approaches to the study of contrasts.

Schultz tended to take a relatively extreme (some might say affected) approach to these contrasts. His reading of the fermata in the opening and closing section seems to have been deliberately exaggerated, thus distracting from Schubert’s own devices to cast dark shadows on what otherwise might be taken for a pleasant melody. Furthermore, the tremolo passages in the middle portion always seemed on the brink of devolving into a formless blur. It is hard to imagine that Schubert would have wanted it that way, and it certainly would not have sounded that way on an instrument from his own period. The result emerged as an over-dramatization of music that was dramatic enough when left to its own merits.