Pianist Jenny Lin seemed almost apologetic before the start of her concert Thursday evening at the Steinway Piano Gallery of Nashville. “I haven’t abandoned classical music,” Lin assured the audience. “In fact, all of the pieces I’m playing tonight were arranged by famous classical pianists.”
The noted Taiwanese-born American pianist was in Music City this week to promote Get Happy, her new CD on Steinway’s in-house record label. Her recording features virtuoso arrangements of familiar Broadway songs. Thursday’s concert wrapped up a 10-city tour that had Lin performing in Steinway showrooms across the country.
Lin was arguably correct in asserting that her concert was indeed classical. True, her hour-long program consisted of the songs of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim and other Broadway notables. But the arrangements were all created in the tradition of Franz Liszt. The great 19th-century pianist and composer often turned popular Schubert and Schumann lieder into sparkling instrumental showpieces. Lin’s arrangers have done the same thing for the songs of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.
In all, Lin played 10 selections during her hour-long recital. The songs basically fell into two broad categories: Jazzy, introspective numbers, and knuckle busters. André Previn’s arrangement of the Richard Rodgers standard “Blue Moon” clearly fell in the former group. It was a disarmingly sweet, sensitive and simple piece – it could have been easily mistaken for cocktail piano music. Lin played it from the heart, her eyes closed and her fingers digging into the keys to achieve a maximum amount of lyricism.
British pianist Stephen Hough has long been an unapologetically romantic artist, so writing virtuoso transcriptions comes naturally to him. Lin played his versions of Rodgers’ “Hello, Young Lovers” and “My Favorite Things.” They were effective companion pieces. The former was treated as an affecting song without words, while the latter included lots of glistening passagework. Lin played both songs with élan.
The most surprising piece on the program was probably Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin’s “Meditation on Laura.” What was unexpected was its simplicity and charm. Hamelin is famous in the classical music world for his astounding virtuosity – he can play more notes in less time than any other pianist. He’s one of the few musicians who can actually do justice to the Godowsky-Chopin etudes, super-human finger-twisters that sometimes call on the pianist to play passages of two different Chopin etudes at the same time. Hamelin’s rendition of “Laura,” however, was a reverie. Lin drenched this music in sustaining pedal, shrouding it in a fine, dreamy mist.
Pianist Christopher O’Riley is best known today for his public radio show “From the Top” and for his appealing piano arrangements of Radiohead songs. His transcription of “Johanna,” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, is arguably the most immediate and emotional song on Lin’s album. Lin’s interpretation on Thursday night was deeply felt.
Thursday’s recital included two of the late pianist Earl Wild’s virtuoso etudes based on Gershwin songs. “Embraceable You” is like a harp etude and is filled with flowing, glissando-like arpeggios. “I Got Rhythm” is a pyrotechnical display piece of fast passages and repeated notes. Lin played both tunes with polish and passion.
She closed with the title track of the album, pianist Stephen Prutsman’s arrangement of Arlen’s “Get Happy.” This transcription seems to have derived its inspiration equally from Franz Liszt and Fats Waller. The song includes cascading passages along with a furious rush of boogie-woogie notes. Lin took no prisoners in her performance. She gave it her all and played at a blistering speed. It won a rousing ovation from the audience of piano aficionados, who all drove home happy.