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Painting with the Keyboard

This is a review of a concert of the Marlboro Music Festival at the Freer Gallery of Art last month, on March 4.

In conjunction with the exhibition Mr. Whistler's Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London at the Freer (ended April 4), pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute presented works by Franz Schubert, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Frédéric Chopin to a relatively sparse crowd in Meyer Auditorium. Since the Freer Gallery had difficulties arranging this concert with Mme. Jokubaviciute, they had not been able to get an announcement out early, surely a major reason for the less-than-capacity crowd. Before the concert performance itself, Ken Meyers, the Freer Gallery's curator, gave some very interesting introductory remarks, including slides of pictures and their relationship to the music on the program. For example, the opening notes of Schubert's Moments Musicaux, op. 94, D.780 (1823–1827) are scratched into the frame of Whistler's painting Composition in White.

After these comments, Mme. Ieva Jokubaviciute herself came on stage, a rather charming looking, young, blond lady in a copper-colored silk dress with black lace on the outside, thus perfectly matching the stage's back curtain. No ado before she started with Schubert. Bent over the piano like an aged old lady, she came up with a finely played account that didn't quite sound as felt as her facial expressiveness might have indicated. The Moments were indeed masterfully played from memory but did not communicate as much as I imagine they could. Mme. Jokubaviciute's playing the Steinway like a 100-year-old witch on her broomstick, too, was mildly distracting. So was an occasionally occurring muffled, dragging (schleifender) sound of unknown origin. Since the piano's mechanism was still working at the last concert, I am tempted to attribute it to some sort of humming or singing along on the part of the performer. In doing so (if it is the case), she would have picked up a seeming habit of her current teacher, the wonderful and astounding Mr. Richard Goode, whom I suspect of breathing along with some of the Beethoven sonatas in his outstanding recording of the complete cycle.

Available at Amazon:
Franz Schubert, Sonata D. 568 and Moments Musicaux, Mitsuko Uchida
Claude Debussy, Preludes, Book I, and L'Isle Joyeuse, Maurizio Pollini
Claude Debussy, Preludes, Books I and II, Walter Gieseking
Chopin, Nocturnes, Maria João Pires
Storming and passionate as the end of these pieces are, it was unfortunate that it literally ended on the wrong note, especially given the excellence that procured that moment in the first place. The applause was surprisingly mild, and the audience curiously noisy with programs, watch alarms, and falling coins. Watch alarms, I wish to point out, are the continued curse of concerts. While most people have accepted that turning one's cell phone off during a performance is a good thing, no one seems to bother or even be aware of their digital watches beeping annoyingly at every full hour—which in most concerts is twice—and slightly spread out among watches being either slow or fast. Perhaps many of the culprits would not even know how to turn this function off: alas, there is a way, and I wish they would find it and forever put an end to these obnoxious interruptions.

Fauré's wonderful Barcarolle no. 6 in E-flat major, op. 70 (1896), is neither heroic—as the most famous preceding work in the same key (Beethoven's Eroica)—nor a sprawling self-glorification in E-flat major like its contemporary piece, the (delicious) Ein Heldenleben (Hero's life) by Richard Strauss. Unfortunately it was over so quick that I could not get my finger on its character in time before it was then immediately taken over by the Nocturne.

The habit of not interrupting consecutive performances of short pieces (of one composer) with applause is an economic one, considering time efficiency, and makes sense in that regard. I could not imagine how annoying it would be if every single one of Chopin's 24 preludes were to be applauded in concert. A nightmare, indeed. It is also true that few things are more mortifying than clapping solely or too early in a classical concert. True, when ignorance of the piece seems to be the cause, it can be quite annoying, and I myself am guilty of huffing with disdain. But really, it isn't all that terrible even then. Moreover, if a piece, a movement, a prelude was absolutely outstanding, why not applaud? It was commonplace in the previous eras to reward (or punish) a successful movement or even moment immediately with audience reaction and furthermore ask for a da capo of entire movements when they had been especially thrilling. Of course, that was in a time when we were not able to go home and listen to any given piece as many times as it would please us, and many audiences reacted to a composition rather than a performance. Still, it is somewhat troubling that applause has now morphed into a curiously stifling social or musical skill, the performance of which is governed by semisecret rules put in place by a self-declared erudite elitist strand of audience. From repertoire to behavior, music halls are more and more turning into museums, a trend that I am not too sure of being a good one for classical music.

But other than going off on a tangent, there was also the exhibit of Mr. Whistler's paintings to see, very conveniently left open late so that the audience was able to stroll through this lovingly and beautifully arranged recreation of Whistler's exhibitions during the intermission. Whistler's watercolor "nocturnes," evocative miniatures that were the link between the Fauré and the Chopin that was to follow, are brilliant tiny masterpieces that send a clear message that size does not matter, at least not when it comes to art. They are very abstract, damp, moody pictures in the convenient format of 12 x 12 inches. Many of the paintings, sketches, etchings, etc., spend most of their time in the vaults, because they are rather delicate. That the exhibition showed them for over a month was unprecedented.

Debussy called the audience back to duty, however, with the bubbly and droplike Brouillards (Fog) prelude from Book II (1913). Ably played, they brought my best response to Debussy's music out in me. Wonderfully turned inward, suddenly revealing themselves from behind a façade that can, at times, be difficult to look beyond. The rather famous Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir (Sounds and smells whirl in the evening air) prelude from Book I (1904–10) sounded like a Keith Jarrett recital. (Is this particular one perhaps more famous because, after putting the standard Debussy CD in, it is the first and only piece that is listened to with the necessary amount of concentration and attention?)

In Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow), the birds of Debussy's musical language started to come out. Mme. Jokubaviciute seemed most comfortable in these preludes and outdid herself. L'Isle Joyeuse (The joyous island) and La fille aux cheveux de lin (The girl with the flaxen hair) were the two other Debussy selections she played. After this enormously enjoyable and arousing part of the concert, she could hardly have done any wrong. Especially not with Chopin nocturnes, which are some of the most obviously fitting pieces for the exhibition. The 1841 C minor nocturne, rather than sedating creatures of the night, would wake up every neighbor up and down the street, but music and performance of such quality could well have had none of them mind being woken up. It was this second half of the concert where Ieva Jokubaviciute really seemed to wake up and enjoy herself. Ballade no. 3 in A-flat major, op. 47, composed in the same year, was delivered with a good deal of "oomph" and then went on to sprinkle notes all over the piano, as the young pianist tickled a few out of the keyboard, hunched as she was above the key, and came back to the pulsing theme that reared its head regularly as it went. It was a great end to a concert that improved dramatically in communication after the first half and shall very much hold a special place among the many great concerts that have taken place at the Freer Gallery so far.

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