I Have Seen the Future of Classical Music, and It Includes Drinks

Tania Stavreva
Rhythmic Movement: A Modern View of the Classical Music Recital in the 21st Century
The Metropolitan Room, 27 July 2011

Whither the classical recital in our multi-media/attention deficit disorder age? Will kids nowadays sit in a dark room (worship at a temple of music, as they say) to concentrate only on a lone figure onstage playing non-rock music? Well, it helps to have a drink in hand, as the success of Le Poisson Rouge has shown over the past few years; classical music in a bar with table service is apparently worth the trade-off of the sounds of the music mixing with clinking glasses, the whine of credit card receipts printing, etc. But what else can be added? Well, visuals -- and not just the sight of good-looking people playing the instruments. Kronos Quartet has done this quite successfully with film and even a projection of the printed music score (showing that Penderecki's non-traditional sounds are scrupulously notated was a brilliant idea). As the subtitle of her recital program at the Metropolitan Room (which normally hosts tony cabaret performances) suggests, young pianist Tania Stavreva has some further ideas for enlivening recital presentation.

Lest you immediately think that she's distracting from a talent lacuna, rest assured that such is not the case. When after her 2009 NYC recital debut the city's senior maven of classical music criticism, Harris Goldsmith, likened her Scriabin playing to Horowitz's, it was clear that the child prodigy from Bulgaria had grown into a fully formed and fearsomely talented pianist who need not overcompensate for anything.

Her programming is staunchly modern: the oldest composer played this evening was Eric Satie (1866-1925), half the composers on the program are alive, and there were two world premieres, three if one counts her arrangement of Cage's 4'33" -- which brings us to one of her tweaks of recital decorum. Besides shortening the piece to 3'33", she also added a miked clock (which she says "represents time and...is also a symbol of constant rhythm and pulse that are eternal") and dancers, who for most of their time on stage posed without moving, which seems appropriate in music with no notes. Two pieces utilized electronics. And Stavreva’s bare back was adorned with body paint by Danny Setiawan (a painting of a dancer, reflecting the Rhythmic Movement title of the program), and for most of the program, live video (by Dwight Schneider) of her back was projected on a wall screen; as she played, the dancer moved (well, slightly).

Satie's 3 Gnossiennes opened the program, and at first the video was not live, but rather a close-up of the application of the paint. The rather frenzied movements of the painter clashed with Satie's solemn rhythms, but the musical performance was impeccable. Not for Stavreva the dry tone and flat affect of some Satie players; she deployed rich timbres, excellent legato, and expressive rubato phrasing while honoring the mercurial moods of Satie's directions, moving from one piece to the next with barely a pause.

Next came Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), his Danzas Argentinas, a triptych of character pieces. She used a nice light touch for the first two, keeping the dissonances from becoming too clangorous with her refined pedal technique. Then, for "Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy," she gradually unleashed the power as the piece ebbed and flowed, building to its bravura finish.

Nikolai Kapustin (1937- ) began a stretch of living composers; two selections (Nos. 1 and 3) from his Jazz Concert Etudes were both jazzy and bluesy in a sort of 1920s Futurist mechanical way, alternating lush harmonies with more spare and rhythmically energetic passages.

The first electronics of the evening were heard near the end of Mason Bates's "White Lies for Lomax" when a field recording by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was sampled. Before that, the piano gave us fragmentary and hallucinatory passages; the earthy vocals and percussion of the American South that were overlaid at the end overshadowed the composed segment.

Then came the Cage; it's treated so reverentially nowadays as a modernist classic that in the concert hall there's little to hear, but in the bar that wasn't a problem; there was even the pop of a wine bottle being uncorked. I do think that the addition of the dancers highlighted the visual element too much, distracting from Cage's point of tricking us (so to speak) into listening attentively to sounds we would generally ignore or, at least, process unconsciously. The presence of the dancers meant that the video projection of Stavreva's back, the novelty of which had been exhausted, was turned off.

The pianist segued directly into the next work, Scott Wollschleger's (1980- ) "Chaos Analog," a graphic score. It does evoke chaos with its wide-ranging use of the piano's whole range, but it's not really chaotic since the very structure of the piano encourages certain arrangements of notes (glissandi and arm clusters) and limits the player's options for producing true randomness. The piece itself was also organized in an ABA structure, the outside movements busy, the inner movement quiet. Wollschleger's "November 29th" by contrast is rather Impressionist, with some jazzy harmonies (though, of course, jazz was eventually influenced by Impressionism). This was one of the world premieres; the preceding piece may have been as well, but the printed program (a welcome retention from the traditional recital) listed them on the same line, confusing the issue.

"Moon, Ties, Cycles" by Tim Daoust (1981- ) was a world premiere and included the composer on live electronics; the piano was miked and he altered its timbres (though not constantly) via an Apple laptop. The piano's notes gave us gestural figures; he made the sounds fuzzier or more metallic, sometimes giving them a rattling character. Afterward Stavreva addressed the audience and revealed that both this and the Bates include space for improvisation, but so seamless were the performances that it was not noticeable.

That was it for the new works, but the next two pieces were unfamiliar to us non-Bulgarians. First came the source of the program's title, "Rhythmic Movement," a 1943 piece by Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978). Stavreva played its 9/8 opening theme, improvised on it, and made that improvisation a bridge to Variations on a Bulgarian Folk Song "Dilmano, Dilbero" (1954) by Alexander Vladigerov (1933-1993), Pancho's son. This was quite a musical discovery for me, a magnificent piece. He takes full advantage of the variety inherent in variation form with a wide range of moods and styles, mixing Rachmaninovian Romantic virtuosity full of filigree with soulful Bulgarian songfulness and misterioso tints, with a big climax for the rousing close.

The final work was not the listed Cziffra-Korsakov "Bumble Bee" Etude, but instead the final movement from Ginastera's mighty Sonata. After a long program with no intermission, Stavreva may have been a little worn out; for the first time all night, her fingering was a bit blurred in spots. It was still an impressive gesture to end not with the inconsequential Etude but instead the finale of one of the best piano sonatas of the past century.

So the evening was quite successful musically speaking, but how about the new approaches to the recital? After a while I was tired of the back-painting video, and I prefer Cage without additions, but the electronics enhanced their pieces and I was quite happy to quaff a Blue Moon during the concert. If this is the direction the classical recital is moving in, and if it makes the music seem more inviting to younger audiences, then I'm in favor of it. - Steve Holtje