Saturday, June 12, 2010

Concert Review: Piano Recital by Keith Eisenbrey, 6-5-2010

Two of the remarkable things about concerts in the Good Shepherd Center are the piano that they’ve got there, and the resonating space itself. The piano, of a brand I’ve not heard of before (and I can’t remember as I’m writing this), is a concert grand with such amazing tone that its voice leaps out of it like a living thing, with all of the overtones clearly audible. The space of the hall is just as remarkable; sounds seem to hang in there forever, but without covering up the next sounds. The perfect concert venue for Renaissance choral music, string quartets, or (as in this case) contemporary piano music where the silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.

I’ve heard Keith play before, in solo recitals and at the composers’ salons, so I wanted to make sure not to miss this concert. I was only there for a couple of minutes (I had gotten there slightly late) before he walked onto the stage, uncharacteristically dressed in tails, and proceeded to play six pieces.

Most were in a style vaguely reminiscent of Messiaen. The opening piece, “Keyboard Shortcuts”, by Richard Johnson, was actually a set of six short pieces with “charmingly evocative titles” such as “Opposable Toes” and “Related Sweepstakes Entities”. Most seemed (to my ear at least) to be serialist, though the program notes indicated that “at the core of each is a tautly dissonant four-part chorale”. Part of the interest in the music was how this chorale was worked into the fabric of each piece, with strikingly different results: some of the pieces were loud and dramatic, while others were elegiac and at least one seemed rather humorous.

After this first piece, Keith gave a brief talk about the music, and mentioned that all of the composers except one (Sean Osborn) were in the audience. Sean, he said, was out of town attending a wedding – his own. We (the audience) all agreed that this was a good reason to miss a concert of his own music.

“Theme and Variations for Piano”, by the afore-mentioned Sean Osborn, was the next piece, and it began in sharp contrast. The theme, a series of individual note-heads to be played softly but without any discernible meter, sounded like a lazy river of notes, mostly in the mid-range but with an occasional resonant series in the bass. The three variations unfolded, each different in mood from the others, climaxing in the “Variation: Fast” – another set of note-heads without meter but here played as quickly and loudly as possible; then there was a return to the meandering ruminations of the opening.

The shortest piece (just over 6 minutes), “dear s.,” by Brian Cobb, was one of the highlights of the concert. This was an impressionistic love-ballad that somehow resisted all of the (by now) clichés of impressionism and ballads; a truly beautiful piece vaguely reminiscent of Takemitsu.

The remaining pieces all had something to do with composer Benjamin Boretz, who has been a frequent contributor to the journal “Perspectives of New Music” ( The first was “Liebeslied, amended”; Keith’s slight reworking of one of Boretz’s earlier pieces that had been left unfinished to head in a different musical direction. There were hints of various classical “Liebeslieder” here, in a double spiral of a piece that ascended to a dissonant climax, resolved into a series of arpeggios, hit a repeat sign, and then ended enigmatically without concluding. The position of this piece at the end of the first half of the concert was a masterstroke: it didn’t end, of course – so one needs to come back for the second half to find out what happens next…

The second half was dedicated to two long pieces, both in excess of twenty minutes. Benjamin Boretz, again, was the first composer – (“…my chart shines high where the blue milks upset…”) is the title; yes, that is the correct punctuation (complete with the parenthesis); and yes, that is a quote from James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”. That novel’s dream imagery, fractured language, and stream of consciousness narrative formed the basis for this piece: a dreamy, unfractured, stream of consciousness for piano. Notes presented themselves, almost always two at a time as chords, unfolding gradually, usually (but not always) quietly, flowing, like a river of thoughts… A meditative piece, yet not “meditation music” – it had way too much substance for that. If I were to put a label on it, I’d say it was roughly in the style of Morton Feldman – but only roughly. There was way too much “action” below the surface for that; not so much meditation on single phrases; more (and at the same time less) thematic development. My descriptions are perhaps rather vague, but that’s how this piece should be talked about. There was a CD available of the same piece played by another pianist – I bought it and plan to listen to it several times more.

Keith’s own “Sonata Liebeslied”, the last piece, was in complete contrast and yet somehow of the same ilk. It likewise unfolded slowly, meditatively (from the first few notes of Boretz’s “Liebeslied”, but seemed to contain fragments of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as well). However, its progression, according to Keith, was “lumpy” – clusters of notes appeared, developed, vanished into silence (and the amazing reverberations of that piano, which seemed made for this kind of piece), reappeared in the same or different manner, were crosscut with other clusters and themes, etc. I had the feeling of being taken along in a musical labyrinth, encountering bits of musical “lumps” here, memories of other “lumps” there, meandering, but always heading towards the exit. Near the end there was an actual climax (a brief, loud, allegro section) – this was both a complete surprise and the fulfillment of where the piece had been wanting to go all along. In all, a very beautiful piece. It needs intense concentration on both the part of the listeners and the performer – but that concentration is rewarded with beauty and silence.

And so the concert ended. Quite the work, there; more extended than many piano recitals, and worth repeating. One of its strengths was that the pieces were chosen and arranged to fit together into a giant meta-composition in several movements. (“…my chart shines high…”) was the long slow movement, and the “Sonata Liebeslied”, with its longer development and recall of the earlier piece(s), was the grandest of finales. Stylistically the pieces all related to one another, yet there was enough variety within that style to keep me interested (which would have been the case even if Keith had arranged them in a different order).

The listeners were enthralled. I myself intend to hear Keith’s next concert, and I asked him to play one or more of the piano parts for the StormSound Cycle…

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