Musicien français: Blair musicians play ‘In Laude of Claude’

Claude Debussy turned 150 on Wednesday night, and the piano students of the Blair School of Music turned out in force at Ingram Hall to celebrate. For their concert, organized by Blair’s intrepid piano professor Craig Nies, students from the conservatory’s collegiate and pre-college divisions treated the packed hall to a substantial chunk of the composer’s solo piano repertory. A representative sampling of Debussy’s songs and chamber music was also on the program.

debussyNies has a penchant for staging marathon concerts, and Wednesday’s performance had the feel of a long run. The recital began at half past seven before a full hall and wound to a close shortly after 10, with perhaps half the audience remaining. Blair’s youthful musicians, for their parts, never ran out of steam. All of them played on a professional level, and a few of them demonstrated genuine artistry.

They were certainly given ample opportunities to shine. Nies, a veteran pianist and fixture of the Ingram Hall stage, opted to make just a couple of cameo appearances on Wednesday in the secondary role of accompanist. He ceded the rest of the evening’s limelight to the students.

The recital’s youngest performer, 12-year-old Kazuki Takizawa, opened the concert with three short pieces: En Bateau from Petite Suite (played as a duet with Nies) along with two works from Children’s Corner, The Little Shepherd and Golliwog’s Cake Walk. The youngster gave sweetly lyrical renditions of En Bateau and The Little Shepherd, and he was spot on in the lively Golliwog. It will be fun to watch this young artist grow.

Blair’s other young pianists appeared onstage in groups of four or five at a time to present the composer’s solo works. As one pianist played, the others sat in chairs behind the piano, waiting their turn at the keyboard. This arrangement sped up the proceedings, since we didn’t have to wait for the pianists to enter and exit the stage one at a time – the next pianist was already onstage, poised to play. And since the pianists were playing individual selections from different collections – a piece from Children’s Corner here, something from Estampes there – the effect was like listening to Debussy on iPod shuffle.

debussysmokingAll of these performances were enjoyable. I have no idea whether the young Debussy enjoyed playing through the finger exercises of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum – something tells me he did not. Nevertheless, his Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum from Children’s Corner is one of his most tasteful and graceful pieces, and pianist June Kim gave the work its due. Pianist Nick Goldbach gave a beautifully voiced rendition of the Sarabande from Pour le Piano, while pianist Henry Lui tossed off the difficult Masques with seemingly effortless technique (Lui’s teacher, Amy Dorfman, told me he just learned the piece on his own this summer, making the performance all the more impressive). Pianist Helena Chern had the good sense to delay her rendition of Deuxième Arabesque until an annoying cell phone stopped ringing. Her charming performance was all the more satisfying for the wait. Pianist Jenna Lee played Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes with sweep and sensitivity.

If Wednesday’s performance had a star, it was probably Valerie Hsu, who has decided to follow in her mentor Craig Nies’ footsteps to become an overachiever. She volunteered last year at Room in the Inn, the homeless advocacy group that received the proceeds of the Debussy performance. On Wednesday, Hsu was the only performer to appear as a multi-instrumentalist, playing flute (with Nies at the keyboard) in selections from Six Épigraphes Antiques, and playing piano to accompany mezzo-soprano Julia Di Fiore in Trois chansons de Bilitis. Hsu excelled in both pieces.

The second half of the program featured many of Debussy’s best-known piano works. Pianists Shelby Flowers and Nolan King, respectively, gave lyrically appealing renditions of the Prélude from Suite Bergamasque and Clair de lune. Pianist Colleen Stack easily handled the knuckle-busting Dance (tarantella Styrian), and Thomas Ridgway brought elegance and appropriately powerful sonority to the famous La Cathédrale engloutie.

 It struck me as almost mean to make Hsu and fellow pianists Jeannette Mathieu, Brian Woods and Elenora Pertz wait until nearly the end of the long program to play the evening’s most difficult works. But they were obviously all experienced young players and all did a terrific job. Mathieu played Poissons d’or with fluency and subtle virtuosity; Woods played the difficult Etude No. 1 with a convincing technique; Hsu played Feux d’artifice with sparkle and dash; and Pertz shot off plenty of fireworks in L’isle joyeuse.

debussyumbrellaThe second half also included two chamber works. In the first movement from the Sonate pour violon et piano, violinist Jennifer George and pianist Susan Yang gave a performance that seemed appealingly airy and effortless. Clarinetist Zach Manzi and pianist Polly Brecht closed the concert with an unfailingly expressive and virtuosic account of the Première Rhapsodie.

It’s worth noting that Blair is getting pretty good at observing composer anniversaries. Last season’s John Cage centennial celebration was fantastic, and last night’s Debussy concert struck me as an unqualified success. Wagner’s 200th anniversary (on May 22, 2013) is just around the corner. Blair’s sopranos might want to start practicing their “Hoyotohos.”

Print Friendly
About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.