Last night at Old First Church, the ZOFO Duet of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman began their tenure as artists-in-residence in the Old First Concerts series with a program of five world premieres, all commissioned. Having firmly established their reputation for stimulating programs (and recently a GRAMMY nomination) based entirely on the repertoire of music for four hands on one keyboard, ZOFO is now expanding that repertoire through commissions. If last night’s program is representative, they are doing so at a prodigious rate.
Where serious listening is concerned, however, quality always trumps quantity. So it is important to emphasize just how substantive last night’s recital was. Most important was how much diversity there was across the work of the five composers on the program. That diversity covered not only different ways of thinking about what those four hands on one keyboard could do but also different approaches to tradition, particularly where formal architecture is concerned.
Thus, the program concluded with an instance of that most traditional of structures, the four-movement sonata. This is the first is a series of projected pieces by composer Gabriela Lena Frank with the title “Sonata Serrana,” which refers to the influence of Peruvian folk sources. Frank talked about the influence of Béla Bartók and his rethinking of Eastern European folk sources, as well as that of the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. Like both of these composers, she is less interested in any explicit legacy of tunes than she is in indigenous approaches to performance. Both Bartók and Ginastera were inspired by the personal and social approaches to making the music, rather than just the music itself; and it is that spirit of performance that gave each of those composers a characteristic identity.
Frank is clearly establishing her own identity by similar means in this “Sonata Serrana.” The four movements capture four different times of day, an approach that may (or may not) look back on how Claude Debussy organized the three movements of his Iberia suite. The influence of that suite’s structure may also be found in the carnival atmosphere of Frank’s final movement, in which all hell breaks loose against the ostinato of a driving rhythm in the Quechua Indian style.
Considering that the ZOFO pianists are Japanese and Swiss, they did a stunning job of capturing Frank’s Peruvian spirit. Each of the four movements was disclosed with almost visual clarity, emerging against the structural clarity of each movement’s formal foundations. The final movement then burst forth with chaotic exuberance, demonstrating that traditional forms remain as expressive as ever in the service of new melodic and rhythmic ideas.
Equally traditional was Stefan Cwik’s decision to structure his “Acrobats” in variations form. The title refers to the fact that each variation is an etude based on some technique unique to four-hand performance. The entire composition is in six movements. The theme is stated in the first movement, preceded by an introduction. This is followed by four variations, each involving a different technique. The concluding movement is then a dance, which brings together material from all of the preceding movements. Metaphorically, one may say that, after the acrobats have perfected all of their tricks, they are ready to perform in the circus ring. The ZOFO performance nicely paralleled this metaphor, building up the repertoire of the variations, all of which involved distinctive differences in sonority, and then bringing them all together for the finale.
This focus on sonority was even more evident in Nakagoshi’s own composition, “Synæsthesia,” which opened the program. Nakagoshi called this piece a nocturne. However, the evocative qualities of his use of sonority brought to mind the visual qualities of many of Debussy’s preludes, as well as the harmonic ambiguities found in the preludes of Alexander Scriabin. In addition, the broader palette of sound qualities also evoked many of the spiritually visionary piano compositions of Olivier Messiaen.
Influence was also distinctive in Allan Shawn’s composition, called simply “Fantasy.” Shawn himself wrote of the melodic influences of Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler, but those influences were well concealed in his own harmonic textures that tended to venture away from the need for a tonal center. While Shawn’s title denotes a free-form composition, his structure reflected the episodic qualities that one encounters in the work of past composers who used the same label.
The one composition that seemed to set its own path with little room for past influence was Nicholas Pavkovic’s “Chimaera.” This was originally composed with computer software for player piano performance, and much of the initial input came from digital capture of Pavkovic’s improvisations. The title refers to the mythical beast whose body consists of the parts of other animals. Pavkovic described “Chimaera” as a synthesis of two different approaches to performance emerging from the same keyboard. Nakagoshi and Zimmermann alternated in which pianist took which approach, but the chimerical aspect of Pavkovic’s vision was abundantly clear. If this was originally conceived as “machine music,” ZOFO managed to endow it with all the best qualities of human performance, allowing the score to transcend its more abstract origins.
Ironically, the only downside to this evening was its abundance. Each of the compositions on the program provided much to stimulate the serious listener. However, on first exposure, that stimulation was one of discovery. Unfortunately, there is only so much discovery that the all-too-human mind can accommodate over the course of a mere two hours (even with an intermission). All five of these commissioned works deserve further consideration, but they also deserve a context in which they are not competing with each other. Hopefully, in future recitals, individual works will be selected to share the program with more traditional samples from the ZOFO repertoire; and, in that setting, it will be possible to appreciate further (and perhaps more fully) what each of these works has added to the four-hand repertoire.