When Gyorgy Sándor thundered through Schumann's "Carnaval" in Alamogordo's public school auditorium a few decades ago, a little kid in the audience fell tumultuously in love with the piano. That would be me. And when Joyce Yang had her way with "Carnaval" at a recent Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival noon concert, Schumann plus Yang made that love affair seem like only yesterday.
Yang, who received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant last year, programmed Schumann's pyrotechnical
warhorse as grand finale to a series of delectable keyboard vignettes she put together Aug. 10 at St. Francis Auditorium. The concert satisfied in nearly every way, as I'll specify, after a brief digression.
It's been obvious for several years now that young pianists are emerging with astonishingly gifted technical skills, far surpassing anything the concert stage has seen before. Many have hailed from Asia, Israel and the Slavic countries. Anthony Tommasini, a recent commentator on our local music scene, discussed this phenomenon in The New York Times on Aug. 14; in witness thereof, note Santa Fe's prodigious display of young keyboard talent, past and present, courtesy of the SFCMF.
Take, for example, pianists like Yuja Wang, Kuok-Wai Lio, Inon Barnatan, Joyce Yang and, next season, Kirill Gerstein and Haochen Zhang—all of whom appeared or shall appear here as 20-somethings, all undaunted by just about any item in the repertoire. Still, technical facility needn't equal interpretive ability and, indeed, seldom does. A few years ago, Marc Neikrug, the SFCMF's artistic director, spoke frankly about a young pianist on his roster: "Well, [X] doesn't lack for skill. But the late Beethoven sonatas? I don't think so."
This summer, interpretation has so far matched up with technique among the festival's young keyboard artists. Yang began her recital with Lowell Liebermann's "Gargoyles" (1989), a showy four-part piece whose frenetic outer movements recall the equally fantastic "Scarbo" movement from Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit." Interpretive depth is almost secondary here, unlike in Debussy's impressionistic three-movement "Estampes" that followed.
Yang brought out all the pentatonic shimmer in "Pagodes," the sinuous virility of "Soirées dans Grenade." In the quieter sections of "Jardin sous la pluie," as well as in "Carnaval" which followed, her legato passages made us forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. Schumann's manic moods, his waltzes and death dances, his feverish melancholy and muscularity, all came alive in Yang's compelling "Carnaval."
The Aug. 11 concert brought oboist Liang Wang, violinist Giora Schmidt, violist Lily Francis and cellist Felix Fan together for Mozart's Oboe Quartet, K. 370. Wang was his inimitable, bewitching self. Mozart's killer, high-flying upper register? No problem. The Adagio's long-breathed minicadenza? At 7,000 feet? Piece of cake. The quartet, quite simply, made a joyful Mozartean noise.
Wang exited the ensemble and Joyce Yang took over the piano for Liebermann's Quartet for Piano and Strings, Op. 114 (2010). The work was commissioned by and had its premiere last summer at Music from Angel Fire. A quasi-Brahmsy, often pensive piece marked by sudden predictable mood-shifts, it demanded much more from its performers than from its listeners. A former music professor of mine remarked about a similar composition, "Hmm…[so-and-so] must have been thinking about something else when he wrote this one."
No such distraction influenced the final work on the program, Schubert's Quartet No. 15, D. 887, his last string quartet, written two years before the composer's death. The Orion Quartet's account of this disturbing piece presented its every dimension: the tragic fury, the anguish and the mystery. I doubt if we'll hear a finer performance anywhere.