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Steven Lin Goes to the Opera

Although Steven Lin did not end up winning the Kapell Competition two years ago, he made quite a splash with the audience. Washington Performing Arts brought the young Taiwanese-American pianist back to the area for a Hayes Piano Series recital on Saturday afternoon, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. It revealed a musician with often astounding technique, searching for extremes of sound: sometimes he connected with the music, especially when there was a compelling narrative for him to tell, and sometimes he did not. (As for his rambling introductions to some of the pieces, at the edge of incoherence, some musicians -- frankly, most of them -- should just let the music speak for itself.)

The outer pieces on the program were both inspired by opera, in a way, a dramatic quality that brought out Lin's strengths as a storyteller. Beethoven's E-flat major piano sonata (op. 31, no. 3) offered Lin a game of buffo contrasts and gestures, as if the sequence of movements were scenes from a comic opera by Mozart or Haydn. Voicing gradations created a sense of solo versus tutti textures, with the plethora of wrong-note appoggiaturas played like pratfalls or laughter. The raucous second movement, a surprise scherzo, sounded like a crowd scene, with a chorus calling back and forth in a confused night setting, and the third movement, a minuet doubling as slow movement, like a sweet serenade at a window or a courtly dance, with a comic interlude for a trio. Here, with the repeat of the minuet, Lin lost steam and the performance turned a little dull, a situation that only worsened in the super-fast finale, played without much nuance and far too much bang.

Other Reviews:

Simon Chin, Pianist Steven Lin sets bar high for Washington Performing Arts’ new season (Washington Post, September 29)
Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan was enough to prove Lin's technical bona fides, and the variations on Là ci darem la mano were daring and polished. The piece, I suspect, depicts Mozart's Don Giovanni after the opera's conclusion, taken off into hell where, according to Dante's conception, he reenacts his sins in eternity. This is why the music of the stone guest comes first; why the seducer's reminiscence of his seduction of Zerlina is accompanied by chromatic swirling music, as if depicting the foul whirlwind of the second circle of Inferno; and why it ends on the manic repetition of the Champagne Aria, Don Giovanni thumbing his nose at heaven from his punishment. Lin's mastery over the demands of Schumann's third sonata (F minor, op. 14) was no less impressive, but other than a general feeling of anxiety that pervaded the piece, it had no compelling tale to tell in Lin's hands. A new piece by David Hertzberg (b. 1990), notturno incantato, was a moderately interesting diversion, a static work of Lisztian tremolos and feathery right-hand ostinatos.

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