Composers have spent much of history writing piano music for just one-half of the instrument. Zubin Kanga, a gifted London-based pianist, specializes in music that takes advantage of the whole piano.
On Saturday afternoon, Kanga was at the Blair School of Music’s Choral Rehearsal Hall, performing a concert that explored the piano from the inside out. His program focused on music written for both the inside of the piano (music played on the instrument’s harp-like strings) and outside (notes performed on the instrument’s good, old-fashioned 88 keys). Seldom has a Blair Steinway received such a thorough workout.
The program included the world premiere of Blair composer Michael Alec Rose’s Sui Generis: Five Types for Piano Inside/Out. All five pieces in this cycle took their names from such movie and pulp fiction genres as mystery, sci-fi and fantasy. They functioned, however, not as narratives but as portraits, with each piece conjuring an image of its dedicatee.
Rose dedicated the opening piece, “Mystery,” to David Gorton, an unassuming British composer who writes emotionally volatile music (the juxtaposition of docility and aggression is the mystery). The piece was a mix of improvisational, cadenza-like passages (plucked notes and glissandi) written for the inside of the piano, and bold, dissonant chords and melodic patterns played on the keys. Kanga played every note, inside and out, with polish and precision.
“Sci-Fi,” dedicated to Kanga, was the most ostentatiously avant-garde work in the cycle. It featured Kanga rotating a pair of Ben Wa balls on the strings to create strange, colorful sounds. Occasionally, Kanga would knock the balls together or hold them above his head and ring them, as if he were engaged in some sort of exotic ritual.
“Romance” was dedicated to Rose’s wife, Joanna, and was, as the titled suggested, a beautifully expressive piece. British violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved was the dedicatee of “Horror,” and Kanga clearly had fun letting out a monstrous groan while plucking and playing his way through the score. “Fantasy” was Rose’s self-portrait. It was the least avant-garde work in the set (Rose is more of a neo-Romantic) and was filled with spontaneous and lighthearted passages. In other words, it was a photorealistic portrait of the composer.
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Rose studied briefly with the great avant-garde composer George Crumb. Appropriately enough, Kanga’s concert featured a performance of Crumb’s groundbreaking 1972 masterpiece Makrokosmos, Vol. 1.
The 12 works in this cycle, which boast such titles as “Primeval Sounds,” “The Phantom Gondolier” and “The Abyss of Time,” are among the most imaginative works ever written for the piano. Kanga used a chain necklace, metal thimbles and coins to produce a wealth of weird, prismatic sounds inside the piano – “The Phantom Gondolier” truly sounded as if some fiendish phantom was playing a demonic harpsichord. Kanga was in his element in all of these pieces, playing with just the right mix of musicality and theatricality.
Saturday’s concert included three U.S. premieres: Param Vir’s Intimations of Luminous Clarity, Michael Finnissy’s Z/K and David Young’s Not Music Yet. Young’s piece was the most adventurous. He turned the piano into a true percussion instrument, with the pianist playing the strings with drum brushes and mallets. Finnissy’s Z/K was the only work on the program that included no playing inside the piano. Nevertheless, the work’s uncompromising modernism made it a good fit for the concert.