Taka Kigawa at LPR


Taka Kigawa

Le Poisson Rouge

August 26, 2013

by Christian Carey


NEW YORK – Pianist Taka Kigawa is fast becoming one of New York’s leading interpreters of contemporary classical music. His recital on August 26th at Le Poisson Rouge focused on American works written since 1980, with the addition of an important piano sonata from the 1940s. Featuring two major works by recently deceased composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012), the program was filled with challenges and potential pitfalls. Happily, Kigawa rose to the occasion.


Like a number of his other postmodern concoctions, “Carny” by John Zorn (a composer improviser who turns sixty this week) is well-stocked with quotations. Placed amid forceful cascades of clusters and dissonant arpeggiations, they frequently supply comic relief in the midst of an otherwise daunting musical surface, often verging on violence. In another leavening gesture, cocktail music and jazz collide with the aforementioned hypermodern punctiliousness. This invites the performer to act as a kind of raconteur; an extravagance Kigawa eschewed.


Instead the pianist served as the music’s straight man, never playing it for yuks, letting the bizarre emergence of a pileup of quotes from Mozart, Chopin, Bartók, Boulez, Stockhausen, and the Tristan chord (and many more), one after another, speak for themselves. Ives’s Concord Sonata, a clear touchstone for Carny, was pillaged as well: perhaps serving as a hat tip from the composer. And Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies, another work with diverse (though self-contained) reference points, which was heard later in the evening, was also prominently quoted. I liked Kigawa’s approach; although it lacked a bit of zaniness, it brought out the collage aspect of Zorn’s compositional process.


Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata (1946) is one of the most important American works written during the 1940s. A transitional piece in Carter’s output, it gives hints of innovations soon to come – in the Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) and the First String Quartet (1951) – yet at the same time primarily presents harmony from the vantage point of neoclassicism. Of all the works on Kigawa’s recital, this one was the least pristinely performed. However, a few wrong notes and odd turns of phrase were more than compensated for by a thought-provoking and often unconventional interpretation; one that still leaves me reconsidering the piece. It should also be mentioned that LPR’s piano was misbehaving throughout much of the performance of the sonata; a buzzing bass string and internal clatter were elements beyond Kigawa’s control that made me willing to give him a pass on a few clunkers. Indeed, that’s why we go to hear live music, to witness an artist contending with a composition (and, sometimes, with an instrument) in real time, not edited and sanitized to death on a recording. (Happily, LPR had a technician on hand who helped put the piano in shape after the sonata concluded).


Kigawa’s rendition of the sonata simultaneously looked forward and backward from 1946. Thus, in choices of voicing, phrasing, pedalling, and gesture, Kigawa didn’t emphasize the piece’s connection to the music of his American contemporaries, such as Copland and Harris. Instead, in his willingness to shear off certain gestures abruptly, to voice both the consonant and dissonant pieces of chords equally instead of balancing them to succumb to inevitable resolution, and to allow angularly constructed lines to revel in their leaping, the pianist played up the connection between the sonata and later, modernist music by Carter (one could readily hear it in places as Night Fantasies’ musical grandfather). In other sections of the piece, Kigawa made the connection between Carter and French neoclassicism, recalling the Parisian musical milieu in which Carter undertook graduate studies with Nadia Boulanger. These areas of the sonata featured lush moments of post-impressionist harmonies, a more delicate dynamic framework, and graceful counterpoint. Hearing both of these stylistic eras/genres collide in the sonata was fascinating. And hearing its “Americana” influences, blunted as a result helps make manifest connections between the sonata and Carter’s later, high modernist style.


Completed in 2005-’6, Sean Shepherd’s Three Piano Preludes are brief, relatively early pieces in his catalogue. While they aren’t as sophisticated as his work would become in just a couple of years, the preludes demonstrate the composer’s then already keen ear for creating effective textures. After enthusing about them on the house microphone, Kigawa played these pieces excellently. It is clear he would be an ardent interpreter on behalf of Shepherd. One hopes the composer will soon give him a larger work into which to sink his teeth.


The first prelude is reminiscent of Messiaen’s penchant for birdsong and also features a beautiful and spaciously deployed harmonic palette. The second features a puckish 6/8 dance with angular (and virtuosic) interjections. It is quite difficult to play certain passages’ wide spanning leaps, but Kigawa made them sound relatively easy. Near the end, Brahms’s Lullaby is quoted before being dismissed in prickly and mischievous fashion. The difference between Zorn’s use of quotation for comedic effect and this less successful interpolation was notable. The final prelude plays on both the ringing insistence of a sustained single note melody and a background filled with wind chime like oscillations. Of the three, it was the most successful, best demonstrating the composer’s individual voice.


Night Fantasies (1980) is Carter’s weightiest solo piano work from his later years. Carter has mentioned Kreisleriana by Robert Schumann as a touchstone for Night Fantasies. In interviews, he sometimes discussed bouts of insomnia, cured by declining Latin and Greek irregular verbs; his program note for Night Fantasies alludes to sleeplessness and the thoughts it evokes. An interesting way of framing the piece is as a nocturne for insomniacs. The Schumann work may be a kindred spirit; however, it is structurally different from Carter’s piece. While Kreisleriana has eight distinct movements, Night Fantasies is instead cast in a single movement, over twenty minutes in duration. Within this structure, there are any number of ephemeral sections and fleeting gestures; the frequent shifts of demeanor are dazzling. Of course, undergirding all of this surface busyness are long range rhythmic relationships. Carter carefully worked out the architecture of Night Fantasies, copiously sketching, even by his exacting standards of precompositional planning.


To successfully pull off performing Night Fantasies, a pianist must connect its mercurial foreground with the structural processes of the piece’s spine, making both evident to the careful listener. The four estimable co-commissioners of the piece – Gilbert Kalish, Paul Jacobs, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen – give one an idea of the caliber of pianist needed for Night Fantasies. Their varying renditions also supply notions of the mutable nature of the work; this in spite of its score’s detailed and abundant markings. Kigawa’s rendition makes a claim for him being in the same weight class as the aforementioned quartet of pianistic heavyweights. It embraces both the micro and macro aspects of Night Fantasies, all the while inhabiting it with technical skill and abundant brio. One hopes that he will tighten up the sonata a bit and record both Carter pieces — soon!


Three of the four programmed works are gargantuan examples of contemporary repertoire. Excelling in any one of them on an otherwise unassuming program would be impressive. To tackle all three of them in a single evening is a Herculean undertaking. Kigawa’s enthusiasm for contemporary music is only matched by his courage and talent.


Why Chris Thile Playing Bach on the Mandolin is a Good Idea

Chris Thile

Bach, Sonatas and Partitas, Vol.1

Nonesuch CD/LP/Digital

Why Chris Thile Playing Bach on the Mandolin is a Good Idea

(A gentle rejoinder to performance practice purists)


1- Attack and decay

The Partitas, three of which are played by Thile on his latest Nonesuch disc, were probably originally played on the violin. But harpsichord looms large in Bach’s chamber music. Like the harpsichord, mandolin also has a sharp attack and quick decay. There are a number of correspondences between the timbre and fleetness of the two instruments that one probably wouldn’t capture if they played the Partitas on, say, clarinet.


2- Melismas


Both baroque chamber works and bluegrass instrumental music share an affinity for melismatic passages (layperson language: lots of fast runs). Anyone who has heard Thile play a solo with Punch Brothers knows how cleanly he can execute fast passage work, sometimes dizzyingly fast passage work. Listening to the Nonesuch disc, it is clear that Thile even upped the ante; he practiced his tuckus off.


3- Edgar Meyer


One of Thile’s frequent collaborators, the composer and bassist Edgar Meyer produces this recording. He is also one of those who spearheaded the bluegrass/classical crossover phenomenon in the 1990s, writing for and encouraging colleagues ranging from Bela Fleck to Yo-Yo Ma to explore the fertile vein of American roots music in a “classical” context. Meyer has also recorded Bach. He “gets” how Bach and modern folk stringed instruments fit together.


4- Bela Fleck


Banjo player Fleck has recorded Bach’s music too, focusing on the Inventions. Didn’t this open the door for a mandolinist to try his hand at recording some JSB? Why should Fleck get to have all the fun?


5- This Isn’t a Lark … or a Stopgap


Unlike some classical crossover projects, which serve as catalogue placeholders or a means to cash in on one the few quasi-lucrative subgenres in the classical recording industry, it is clear that Thile is passionate about this project and humbled by the material he is assaying. In a live video posted on YouTube, after playing a selection by Bach, Thile says that Bach is a tough act to follow with one of his own songs. It’s a joke he often shares in interviews; the jocular self-deprecation contains a great deal of humility.


6- Vol. 1


This also isn’t just a one off. Thile plans to record all of the Sonatas and Partitas on Nonesuch.

7- Tempo and Lightness


Bach is often transcribed for instruments that weren’t prevalent in interpreting his music during his lifetime. Many of us first encountered Bach in translation – played on the piano instead of the harpsichord. Pianos existed during Bach’s lifetime, but he was “old school” in his choice of keyboards: he preferred harpsichord and, above all, clavichord. There is a famous story that illustrates this. Late in his life, Bach travelled to visit his son at Frederick the Great’s court. After having Bach play on his extensive collection of pianos, Frederick offered to give him a piano-forte to take with him. Bach declined, indicating that he preferred his harpsichord at home. (I think this may have had as much to do with carting it home on unpaved roads through a war zone, but that’s just my own suspicion).


While there have been a great many influential interpretations of Bach’s music by pianists – and I don’t seek to assail them here – there is a presto tempo that some movements of the violin Partitas seem to require, with a lightness of texture and touch, that is quite difficult to obtain. It isn’t so much about the metronome marking at which one can play all of those sixteenths and thirty-seconds, but the limpid fluidity of their utterance, that makes these sections of the Partitas succeed. Thile on the mandolin can achieve this delicate fleetness where many violinists and pianists have not.


8- Lute


While we on are the subject of transcription, Bach himself transcribed his own music (and others) for a variety of forces. We hear his violin Partitas played on the lute: why not his partitas on another plucked stringed instrument?


9 – Mandolin isn’t just a Folk/Bluegrass Instrument


We most often associate mandolin with vernacular styles of music: folk, country, rock, and bluegrass. But it has appeared in a number of pieces of Twentieth Century and contemporary classical music. Witness Gabriel Faure’s Verlaine setting Mandoline. Even Schoenberg used it, in his Opus 24 Serenade. Dare we hope for Chris Thile to record some Schoenberg? (I’m half kidding, but I bet he could make it work!)


10 – Historical Accuracy vs. Historically Informed Performance


Truth be told, none of us are hearing Bach’s solo instrumental works as he heard them performed. Most often, they were heard in an intimate setting, a small room, not in a recital hall, not in a formal concert with the etiquette (and ticket prices) of today, and certainly not on a recording. We are both fortunate to live in a time where we are able to turn on a Bach recording anywhere, and impoverished that Bach’s music has become cultural shorthand – for a formality and canonical type of thinking he likely wouldn’t have recognized. And perhaps this is why Chris Thile’s Bach performances get some of the purist crowd up in arms.


Thile does no violence to the aesthetic in which Bach’s music was conceived; indeed he is quite dutiful in executing the material. Perhaps some of the purists aren’t reacting to Thile’s performances, but the milieu in which he performs Bach. Thile presents sonatas and partitas alongside bluegrass tunes, solo originals, and covers of alt-rock songs by Radiohead. He plays Bach for crowds that hoot and holler when they are delighted. While he is playing, there may even be alcohol with hops (from a can!)  imbibed by the audience. No one, least of all Thile, wears formal attire, no one in a tuxedo is present. It goes to show, you can win a MacArthur Fellowship and there still will be naysayers.


11 – Brubeck, Carlos, Swingle, and others


Haven’t we been through this phenomenon before? Bach played by Dave Brubeck in front of college kids, Walter/Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a Moog synthesizer, Ward Swingle arranging Bach excerpts for the Swingle Singers and a jazz combo; at one time or another, all of these approaches to J.S.B.’s music have been viewed as heretical violations of the canon. It is due to the resiliency of Bach’s oeuvre that new types of arrangements are of his works are made and that they work. Notice that other great composers’ works wouldn’t hold up to this type of treatment. Bruckner hasn’t had many synthesizer albums made of his Te Deum. Grieg’s Piano Concerto would be an unlikely candidate for a jazz meditation. Partly due to the evolving instrumentation of the baroque scoring giving artists a sense of permission, and partly due to a performance practice that, as we’ve pointed out, has included transcription for decades, Bach will continue to be reinvented and reinterpreted in a host of ways. Relax, sit down, and enjoy. Or, if mandolin doesn’t float your boat, reach for one of the many easily available harpsichord renditions of the Partitas.


12- Outreach


There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the news media and at arts organizations about “outreach.” Who will be the audiences of tomorrow? Is classical music dying? How will we get the young people to love music when all that they seem to listen to involves twerking? You want to hear great music, played authentically, that works as artistic outreach to new audiences? It’s on this recording.