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Marilyn Nonken Plays Three

Marilyn Nonken at the pianoIt was a tough choice on Monday night, between Chanticleer's concert of recent choral music at the Library of Congress (reviewed in the Post today) and the latest concert of contemporary music at La Maison Française. I chose the latter, a program of recent French pieces by pioneering pianist Marilyn Nonken, including the world premiere of a new work by Pascal Dusapin. With money from the French-American Fund for Contemporary Music, Nonken commissioned Dusapin's Préludes (2004-06), a set of miniature pieces in the tradition of Chopin and Debussy. The composer has dedicated them to Marilyn Nonken, who will give the completed set a full performance at the Festival d'Automne in Paris.

On Monday night, we heard the world premiere of seven preludes, performed in a version that will apparently be revised for the Paris performance (on December 9). Each piece evoked a different character, such as bell-like clusters in the short, high-register first prelude and the more angular, giocoso middle- to low-range second one, reminiscent of Debussy's Minstrels. The best preludes are the fourth, an agitated toccata recalling Prokofiev and the striking third prelude, based on a repeating-note motif, very difficult to play. The end of the cycle was anticlimactic, with a disappointing turn to drawn-out and slow tempi and pointillistic textures. By contrast to the exciting and virtuosic playing Nonken gave in the first four pieces, a paralyzing sense of stasis set in. Dusapin has specified that the pieces can be played in any order, and he gave them, instead of descriptive titles or sequential numbers, only the date of composition. Perhaps a different ordering would be more effective.

Marilyn Nonken at La Maison Française, 30 October 2006Joël-François Durand, who traveled from Seattle (he is on the faculty at the University of Washington) to be at this concert, gave an introduction that was about as wandering as the piece he was explaining, Le Chemin, from 1994. He said that the title refers to the long walks he took in the Black Forest while he was studying in Germany. The piece is a reworking of the solo part of Durand's piano concerto from the previous year, which he described as the piano fighting with itself. The work was monochromatic in a dissonant and expressionistic mode, sounding like a freely constructed fantasia, active, focused on the instrument's lower register but without much audible sense of form (not coincidentally, Durand is a student of Brian Ferneyhough). My brain found little to hold on to, although a middle section that evoked a muted cloud of rumbling was beautiful, as was a quiet section focused on the upper range.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Complete Piano Music of Tristan Murail, Marilyn Nonken (released on September 27, 2005)
The best piece on the program was Tristan Murail's Les Travaux et les Jours, from 2003. This set of nine pieces provided the conclusion of a long program, about 90 minutes, played without intermission. It was as varied and finely shaded as the Durand piece was monolithic. Nonken, who has worked closely with Murail (who is on the faculty at Columbia) to make a recording of the piece, gave a thoroughly nuanced performance, from the opening trance-like harmonic stasis of the first movement, not unlike Debussy's Voiles, which introduces the upward swirl of notes that becomes the entire work's obsessive idée fixe. A number of the movements read like variations on that theme, a characteristic scale that trails off in a chromatic wisp, like cigarette smoke curling up from an ashtray, which is treated with leggiero delicacy, battered with resonant clusters, and polka-dotted with raindrop flourishes at different points. Murail's writing seemed the most pianistic of the three pieces, music that seemed to have been designed with the intention that it would be played on the piano. Not surprisingly, it is also the most pleasant listening. I am looking into acquiring a review copy of the CD.

The next concert of contemporary music at La Maison Française will be the highly anticipated recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on May 7. On a related note, a little birdie tells us that the Spoleto Festival in Charleston will stage Dusapin's 2006 opera Faustus, the Last Night. The festival has not officially announced its season, however.

Although presented as such by La Maison Française, with Marilyn Nonken's tacit approval, this was not the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Préludes. In fact, Nonken had played the same program two days earlier on October 28, at New York University's Frederick Loewe Theater. That was the world premiere, making Monday's concert the Washington premiere.

Thanks to blogger George Hunka for bringing this to my attention. Anyone interested in Marilyn Nonken's work should also read George's extended interview with her from last spring. He has also written an appreciation of Tristan Murail's piano music, in the recording made by Marilyn Nonken.

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