Courtesy of Cornell Concert Series

November 6, 2016

More Tricks Than Treats?: Pianist Tamara Stefanovich at Barnes

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Toward proving that “solo piano” is a misnomer, I might present Friday night’s recital by Tamara Stefanovich as my Exhibit A. Stefanovich knows that the piano is more than a single entity, that the trials of other composers and performers before — if not also echoes of those after — graft their own wires into its evolving circuitry. Not only did she seem to make reference to these histories, but also created an alternative one of her own.

Her program was a formidable one. Titled “35 Études,” it brought together knuckle-busting pieces of varying temperament. By way of Frédéric Chopin’s “Étude in F minor (Op. 25, No. 2),” Stefanovich lured us onto her virtuosic terrain with something familiar before dismantling expectations through all that followed, as Claude Debussy’s wistful “Étude No. 6” (a deconstruction of the Chopin) came tumbling in. On its heels were the “12 Études, Op. 33,” of Karol Szymanowski, whose aphoristic exoticism wore its age well, and in which Stefanovich’s hands were veritable spiders, each finger a leg catching its own strand of web. If Szymanowski’s were self-enclosed thought spirals, then the 10 Études of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen were open-ended intonations. Beautiful, restless expanse shared space with occasional bursts of complexity, such as a brilliant, abortive “Boogie Woogie.”

Though Stefanovich billed the program’s closing selections from György Ligeti’s 18 Études as the “Mount Everest” of the genre, to my ears the Abrahamsen towered over all, for everything subsequent to it navigated a downward slope into pedantry. Some of it was the music’s fault, as in dedications by two friends of the pianist: Vassos Nicolau and Steingrimur Rohloff. The former’s etudinal compass was in desperate need of recalibration, as its due north was nowhere to be discerned, while the latter’s rhythmic showcase felt like a cheap imitation of Steve Reich, a conscious inspiration. Despite their evocative textures, the sounds were not at all inviting. Stefanovich seemed to play them for herself, as confirmed by the half-cocked smile she sported throughout their performance.

Even the brilliant Olivier Messiaen felt ill-represented, for the first of his Quatres etudes de rhythme was over and done with in less time than it took Stefanovich to preface it with a longwinded explanation of its merits. Which brings me to my biggest issue with the performance: between every piece Stefanovich ladled explanation after explanation over the audience, as if to dictate how we should be listening to modern and contemporary classical music. It was like giving away the ending to a film before screening it. The simile is a conscious one, for her playing was so intensely visual — indeed, a synesthete’s dream come true — that it made learning about it beforehand all the more tiresome as the night wore on.

Beyond that, however, were the pieces themselves, many of them drawn at key intersections of development in 20th-century music, and consequently toeing the line between accessibility and impenetrability. And therein lay the rub. It was difficult to know how to react to this music, which, if Stefanovich’s copious lecturing was any indication, was far more interesting from a musicologist’s standpoint than from a listener’s. The end result was, at least for me, more of a player- than user-friendly experience. Greater than the music, however, was the privilege of seeing Stefanovich play it in such close quarters. In her presence, incorporation and integration become vastly different concepts at her fingertips, by contact of which one became spatial and the other temporal. Sadly, without the opportunity to build our own vessels of interpretation, we were left to swim when the currents overturned us as she paddled onward.

Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]