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April 6, 2009

Peter Serkin gives illuminating recital at University of Baltimore

When the University of Baltimore opened its Student Center a few years ago, the Performing Arts Theater on an upper floor proved to be a little gem of a venue. (Well, there was an annoying electronic hum for a couple seasons, but that's finally gone now.) UB president Robert Bogomolny envisioned an active space for classical music and even went up to the Steinway and Sons factory in New York to purchase a concert grand with the help of stellar pianist Yefim Bronfman, who dutifully played his way through half a dozen or so instruments before settling on one with abundant tonal impact. Not too many 200-seat theaters boast a nine-foot Steinway, I'd bet.

This season, the piano is getting its biggest workout so far with the help of a recital series focusing on noted keyboard artists, such as Peter Serkin, who performed at UB on Saturday night. (Gary Graffman wraps up the series next month.) The place wasn't packed -- I think the challenge of urban parking has kept more people from discovering the theater -- but the audience was well rewarded.

With his three-piece suit, pocket handkerchief and glasses, the graying Serkin (pictured at left) resembled a banker from a 1940s movie when he stepped onto the small stage. In some ways, his approach to music-making had some of the aloofness of a studious financial executive, too, but ...

there was plenty of fire in his playing nonetheless.

Serkin can always be counted on to think through every aspect of a composition, to ensure that the whole program makes a cohesive statement and that the audience will have much to contemplate on the way home. In this case, the unifying theme was baroque music, but only two of the four composers whose works were played actually came from the baroque era.

By placing Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques between one of John Bull's ingenious fantasies on the first six notes of a scale and a transcription of J.S. Bach's C minor Lute Suite, BWV 997, Serkin revealed their similar concerns with clarity of line and texture. The baroque popped up in the second half of the program, at least briefly. Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Handel dispenses with the Handel tune very quickly, plunging into full 19th century romanticism without another thought about baroque idioms until after all the 25 variations, when a giant fugue provides a finale.

Really driving home the baroque theme was the unusual tuning of the piano. At Serkin's request, the technique of mean-tone temperament, according to principals advocated by Rameau in the mid-1700s, was used. I won't try to explain it (because I'd screw it up), but suffice it to say that it gave the instrument a subtly different quality.

In all of the music, Serkin has much to communicate. The soft, mysterious phrasing in the third of Debussy's Epigraphes was especially effective. In the Bach suite, the pianist achieved a wonderful singing line for the theme of the Fugue and molded highly poetic phrases in the Sarabande.

Serkin played the Brahms score from memory (he used scores for the rest), and he gave it a virtuosic reading, with lots of power and transparency, even at great speed; the Hungarian-flavored variations, in particular, had a real snap. Although there were moments when the pianist's analytical side dominated, with more concentration on details than spontaneous expression, this was pianism of a very high caliber.

Hearing a concert grand at full force in such an intimate setting is a lot of fun, but it seemed as if the hall swallowed up some of the sound. I would have loved to hear a more reverberant afterglow from the piano. That was a minor disappointment, though, in a recital of uncommon intellectual and musical content.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:57 PM | | Comments (2)


Honestly, a Steinway C or B would have been a better choice for this smaller hall. The D _is_ positively gargantuan, literally and figuratively! (I can clearly understand Mr. Bronfman's preference, however. 8^)

Also, as piano tuning is one of my _major_ pet interests, I'm absolutely delighted to hear that Mr. Serkin used a mean-tone temperament -- _very_ appropriate! (Something which I doubt his father would have done...)

(For novices, this tuning -- one of _many_ -- presents all sorts of "unequal" intervals. For example, a perfect 5th [or 4th, or major 3rd, etc.] in C sounds subtly [or not-so-!] different from a perfect 5th in G, or a, or f#. This unequality adds a distinct "colour" to different keys. By contrast, true "equal" temperament has absolutely the same ratios for all intervals in all keys; other than absolute pitch differences, you will hear no different "colours." Quite a scientific feat, but also rather boring...)

Thanks for the insights. And not boring at all. TS

I haven't been to a great number of piano recitals in the last several years but I did hear Serkin on Saturday. (He was excellent.) Has it become common for pianists to use music? It seems to me I never saw this 15-40 years ago. Why do you suppose Serkin didn't memorize the first half of the program??

It hasn't become common for pianists to use music in recitals, but I do see it happen maybe once or twice a year Usually, it is a, shall we say, senior musician who does it. (Leon Fleisher, for example, uses music for concertos as well as solo pieces.) I'm not sure why Serkin relied on the scores for the first half of his program Anyone who can memorize the gargantuan 'Handel Variations' should be able to keep, say, a Bach suite in his head. That said, if the playing sounds fresh, as it did in this case, I find myself more tolerant of the practice.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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