Amy Briggs brilliant in tough American piano music
In the space of about two hours last night, pianist Amy Briggs dove into the daunting field of modern American music -- at one point, nose-first (literally) -- and demonstrated the diverse richness of that repertoire in brilliant fashion.
Her concert, a presentation of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, included a couple of premieres. Traces, by Augusta Read Thomas, is a series of stylistic fusions, suggesting what would happen if you crossed Scarlatti with Art Tatum, or Bach with BeBop. Briggs made a strong cases for these imaginative, often thorny keyboard etudes, especially the austere beauty of Reverie (a supposed mesh of Schumann and George Crumb) and the intense, vibrant complexity of Impromptu (Stravinksy and Chopin meet Thelonius Monk). This was the first public performance anywhere of the complete Traces, composed in 2006.
Like the Thomas work, David Rakowski's Piano Etudes pose any number of technical challenges, while attempting to provide a certain entertainment quotient. Briggs chose seven of the composer's nearly 90, sometimes cheekily-named Etudes, a sampling from the years 1997-2005. Absofunkinlutely conjures up boogie-woogie on acid; Palm de Terre (receiving its official U.S. premiere -- an "informal performance" is on YouTube) surrounds a gentle melody with misty harmonic clusters; Cell Division derives its glittery sonic coloring from the generic sound of a mobile phone being turned on; Chord Shark (an official world premiere, with an informal YouTube version) is like a thunderously dissonant variation on Chopin's C minor Prelude. Briggs delivered these and the remainder with abundant bravura, but her most distinctive feat came in a piece with a silly name, Schnozzage, that doesn't apparently aim for silliness. It calls on the pianist to articulate the melodic line with her nose, while her hands fill in subtle textures at either end of the keyboard. (Until last night, I was under the illusion that Peter Schickele had composed the only nasal keyboard piece -- and that one is intended for a laugh.) Rakowski was on hand to enjoy the dynamic performances of his music.
David Smooke's Requests was also performed in the presence of the composer. This work from 2003, written for Briggs, exploits her technical elan and gets additional color from having her tap on the instrument. A lot of kinetic action is packed into this short and sweet score. Other highlights of hefty program included two more 2003 items: Nico Muhly's Quiet Music, with its tapestry of thick, yet ever-lyrical, chords; and Bruce Stark's elegant, shimmering Waltz. I also admired Briggs' straightforward way with Philip Glass's Modern Love Waltz, but the Waltz No. 1 by the late rocker Elliott Smith, in Christopher O'Riley's lush arrangement, needed more tonal warmth to unleash the bittersweetness of the haunting tune.
This turns out to be quite the week for contemporary sounds. Tomorrow night at the Contemporary Museum, the provocative Mobtown Modern group presents a program of vocal works by Jacob ter Veldhuis, Ken Ueno, Missy Mazzoli and others who "have taken the vocal cords to their outer reaches and beyond." Should be fun.