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Concert Review-A Thrilling Musical Journey By An Extraordinary Young Pianist



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Concert Review—

A Thrilling Musical Journey By An Extraordinary Young Pianist

By Wendy Wipprecht

Newtown Friends of Music brought yet another extraordinary young musician to perform at Edmond Town Hall on Sunday, November 21, bringing the fall portion of its 33rd season to a triumphant close.

The Venezuelan-American pianist Vanessa Perez, who has already been recognized as a virtuosa of the keyboard, began her program with Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004. Pianists often begin their concerts with Bach, perhaps to demonstrate their ability to play his spare-sounding but subtle and technically demanding works. To begin with a Busoni transcription is almost a declaration that the concert will emphasize the Romantic piano tradition, with all its power, passion, and pyrotechnics.

The Busoni transcription is designed to showcase the pianist’s skill (Busoni himself was a virtuoso) and to exploit the piano’s sound potential to the fullest. From the first notes, Ms Perez made it clear that she can play powerfully, as well as with blazing speed, and then move into intense lyricism and an inwardness best described as meditative. She produced room-filling sound one minute and brought out each fugal voice the next.

The next work on the program was Variations on a Theme by Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9, by Johannes Brahms, which was written to console a friend rather than to display the composer’s talent. It is not a grandstanding piece. Nevertheless, it was written to amuse and challenge a great pianist, so complexities and technical demands are embedded everywhere below the surface.

Sixteen variations, each only about a minute long, call for the expression of a variety of emotions; they have a far greater dynamic range; they require delicacy and offer more opportunities for lyrical, thoughtful playing.  Ms Perez’s interpretation showed real feeling and elegance. It was — there is no other way to say it — simply beautiful.

The first half of the concert ended with four short pieces from two piano suites by Isaac Albeniz. The first two pieces were “Granada” and “Asturias” from Suite Espanola. The next two pieces, “Malaga” and “Triana,” are from Iberia, the larger, 12-part suite written about twenty years later. Ms Perez blazed through these showpieces, meeting every technical challenge, making every dynamic and rhythmic hairpin turn, playing with such flash and fire that she left her audience dazzled.

Following intermission, the audience seemed to rustle with anticipation. Since the remainder of the program consisted of works by Chopin, many listeners may have been wondering what those familiar, beloved, and difficult pieces would sound like in Ms Perez’s hands. 

Vanessa Perez took full advantage of the piano’s potential, giving a nuanced and also highly dramatic performance of Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31

One of Chopin’s students described the opening phrases of the piece as a question and answer; the question seems tentative and very quiet, while the answer is loud and emphatic. After a few repeats, the beautiful, flowing melody appears, builds, and suddenly stops. The question-and-answer section, with the melody, is then repeated, with some subtle changes, in its entirety.

The next section is a trio that breaks new emotional ground: it’s thoughtful, solemn, and filled with longing. Then it moves into a part containing some beautifully delicate music, of the sort that calls to mind moonlight on water, and then passes into a set of arpeggios that fly over at least two octaves.

After a moment’s pause, the music becomes louder, faster, more plaintive and insistent, almost unbearably intense. Suddenly some very quiet bass notes return us to the question-and-answer motif and finally to a stunning coda that must call for everything a pianist can summon in the way of speed, power, and brilliance.

Ms Perez, having all these in abundance, took her audience on November 28 on a thrilling journey.

The last work on the program was 24 Preludes, Op. 28, of which Ms Perez performed Nos. 13 through 24. The Preludes are all short pieces — the shortest is only 12 measures long, and the longest 90, or in performance time, they range from about 30 seconds to five minutes — without an apparent formal structure, beyond the “circle of fifths” that determines the order of the preludes by key.

Each of Chopin’s preludes is a self-contained unit expressing a particular idea or emotion; each is in a different key and has its own expression marks (allegro, sostenuto, molto agitato, and so on). To play twelve pieces in twelve different keys and to depict twelve different emotions in the space of about twenty minutes is a challenge in itself.

Ms Perez launched into the Preludes, which she played almost without pause — an effect that increased, if that is possible, the music’s force and intensity. It also made her task more physically demanding, which is something classical music audiences don’t often consider.

Then — and of course, this is the heart of the matter — there are the extraordinary technical demands, some looming like steep cliffs, others lurking below the surface, to be found in each piece, at almost every turn. To play the Preludes merely correctly, note for note, must take years of practice; to play them competently, years more; to play them musically requires something in addition to time and effort.

Whatever one chooses to call that mysterious quality, Ms Perez displayed it in abundance. She performed the famous “Raindrop Prelude” (No 15) so that it was both exquisite and haunting; though it is the longest of the Preludes, she caused this listener to wish it even longer.

Seconds later, she was playing another piece featuring what sounded like multi-octave runs at blistering speed. Gentle, refined melodies yielded to a five-octave downward arpeggiated run and brawling bass notes. It was such an intense, absorbing experience that this listener, at least, after hearing the three booming unaccompanied bass notes that end the last Prelude — played on the piano’s lowest D, a note that probably did not exist on the piano when Chopin was born — was left elated and just a bit giddy.

Whatever the rest of that large audience may have felt, we rose as one for Vanessa Perez. After her third bow, she moved to the piano to play an encore.

Since we live in the age of recordings and music-making machines, it’s often all too easy to lose sight of the person before us on stage, particularly if his or her stage presence is low-key and unassuming. This is true of Ms Perez, though most emphatically not of her music.

We had a glimpse of the charming woman behind the formidable talent: she introduced her encore and then dedicated it to a group of her friends from Weston, who had taken a long drive and bought an entire row of seats. Then she blew them a kiss, sat down, and played a Joropo, a traditional Venezuelan dance by the 20th Century Venezuelan composer Moises Moleiro. This was music close to the Venezuelan-born pianist’s heart. What I remember is repeated notes in the left hand played so fast I could barely distinguish them and wondering, Can she be playing at the speed of sound?

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