Monday, December 21, 2015

October 31, 2009: The four-hand repertoire in the twentieth century

ZOFO (which, by virtue of a clever typographical twist, stands for 20FingerOrchestra) gave its first public concert last night in the Osher Salon of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  The program notes provided the following "mission statement" and introduction:
ZOFO is the San Francisco-based musical partnership of pianists Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann.  As one of only a few ensembles worldwide focusing on piano duets, ZOFO is reviving hidden gems of the one-piano, four-hand repertoire along with a strong emphasis on performing 20th and 21st Century music.  By also playing arrangements of famous orchestral pieces, ZOFO explores the realm that many composers first experienced their symphonic works.
That last sentence was represented on the program by the four-hand version of The Rite of Spring, which Igor Stravinsky completed before the orchestral score.  I seem to recall that it was in this four-hand version that Stravinsky and Pierre Monteux, Music Director of the Ballets Russes, first introduced the work to General Director Sergei Diaghilev and the choreographer he had selected, Vaslav Nijinsky;  but I have not been able to find a confirming source for this.  This score is so rich in polyphonic voices distributed over such a wide orchestral palette that it is hard to imagine any piano reduction doing justice to it;  but, at the very least, the four-hand version gives a clearer statement of Stravinsky's own conception of what was foreground and what was background in all of that complexity.  In other words the piano version provides some level of simplifying abstraction, which the curious listener can use as a "stepping stone" in learning how to negotiate all of the orchestral levels of detail.  For this reason alone ZOFO has done the community of listeners a great service by providing a new path for appreciation of one of the most important musical compositions of the twentieth century.

The opening work on the program involved, on the other hand, a four-hand reworking of incidental music for a poetry recitation scored for two flutes, two harps, and celesta (far from the usual chamber music ensemble).  The texts were the twelve Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louys, most of which were first read and then followed by a musical reflection;  but there are a few instances of the interleaving of text and music.  Debussy selected six of the uninterrupted reflections and reworked them into the four-hand version that ZOFO performed.  Needless to say, most of the color of the original sound has been lost;  but how often can an ensemble be assembled for the original version?  To compensate for the lack of text, Debussy assigned titles that basically summarize the spirit of Louys' words;  so this is a work in which it helps to follow those titles as the individual pieces are performed.  From this point of view, ZOFO did well in capturing the spirit of both those titles and, through their keyboard technique, the original conception of the composition.

The remaining work on the program was conceived as four-hand piano music.  It was a sonata composed by Harold Shapero in 1941, which he first performed with Leonard Bernstein.  Like Bernstein, Shapero was educated at Harvard University.  Between his Harvard experience and subsequent work with Nadia Boulanger, he cultivated his own take on that "American sound" that flourished during the second quarter of the twentieth century.  This sonata is an excellent example of that sound, even if its nature is never particularly adventurous.  Like many of the works of its time, it deserves listening to the extent to which it sets the context from which American music departed so abruptly in the second half of the twentieth century;  so, as had been the case with the Stravinsky offering, ZOFO provided a great service to serious listeners by offering this music for consideration.

ZOFO will provide another opportunity to hear the Shapero sonata at the Red Poppy Art House this Thursday (November 5) at 7 PM.  They will also perform their own "reorganization" of the Opus 39 waltzes of Johannes Brahms and a four-hand arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's Suite Troileana.  Information about further concerts is available at their Web site.

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