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22.5.06

Wonny Song at the Terrace Theater

Wonny Song, YCA
Wonny Song
A gorgeous Saturday afternoon assured that only the hardiest piano lovers among the subscribers of WPAS's Hayes Piano Series (still a substantial crowd) showed up for its season's final recital with Wonny Song. The Korean-Canadian pianist played a program of Beethoven, Ravel, Stephen Paulus, and Musorgsky, beginning with the German-Austrian's Sonata in A Major, op. 2, no. 2, which was a rocky start to a variable program with a successful finish.

The sonata's first movement especially was rife with mistakes that came about in the flurry of the playing; Song was seemingly more interested in impressing an audience with tempestuous virtuoso flair than to enter a dialogue with the piece in front of him. There are works where that is the right approach, but this none too challenging thing is not the right sonata for that. Even where successive movements were more carefully executed, they were still a wash of sound, the Largo with the wonderful bass notes stalking through the music rhythmically uninteresting at first, then better when he sped everything up ever so slightly. If beautiful drudgery were not so evasively contradictory… Sprinkling away in the Scherzo, unselfconscious musicality was the element missed the most. On the upside, Song didn’t skip the repeats of this already long (if not always substantial) sonata and always offered a slightly altered mood in them.

While the obnoxiously loud air-conditioning’s hiss altered the Beethoven joy, it was for a patron, rummaging through a plastic bag for what must have been a minute, to interrupt Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso which I heard superbly done by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet last January (coincidentally right after sub-par Beethoven, too). Song took to the work's buoyant moods and changes in meter, its brazen character, much more than he did to Beethoven.

It is new music that interests us at Ionarts and with Stephen Paulus’s Preludes, Book 1 we got just that. The title of co-founder of the Minnesota Composer Forum (now the American Composer Forum) with Libby Larsen and an academic career spent from first to last day at the University of Minnesota spell out a pedigree that suggests to me that the music to come might have been gratuitously inoffensive (“Minnesota Nice” – which is why I left that all-too-nice state). Fortunately that was not the case. There was a fair amount of spunk in these experimental -- still solidly tonal, mind you -- works. Where they teased the ears, they did with a certain amount of risk, not in that Garrison Keillor way of being “outrageous” with built-in bourgeois approval.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Wonny Song, A Pianist With Real Musicality (Washington Post, May 22)
And while still closer to Peter Schickele than Lee Hoiby, they poked around and raised interest – with the notable exception of prelude no. 2, Mysterious, which was a mash of ponderous, unimaginative, pseudo-sensual ruminating, replete with cheap tricks to insinuate profundity. A very modest effort and exposed for it inferiority by the surrounding works: the heavy, turbulent Sprightly and the concluding, unlikely thundering Serene (finishing with the thump of a held low string).

The second half of the concert was filled out by Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (recently heard with Fazil Say). Fast, athletic, superficially virtuosic; more dynamic contrasts than different color and shading was its beginning. Then, starting with a wonderful entry into the Promenade theme before Il vecchio, Mr. Song showed a more variable tone: warmth and soft hues were present when called upon; the chicks dancing a ballet in the shells of their own eggs, for example, were adorable ‘peckery’. Only the Steinway did not quite play along at all points in this display of true skill: for the very lowest notes it seemed to give out.

Fascinated as they were with the Pictures, the crowd demanded two encores from Wonny Song before they let him go. [For a more positive take on this recital, particularly the Beethoven, read Tim Page's review in the Washington Post.]

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