Making his Kennedy Center debut, pianist David Greilsammer is not only a talented musician but also a man with engaging ideas that reach out to audiences across a wide spectrum of musical history. As part of its Hayes Piano Series, Washington Performing Arts Society knew how appealing Greilsammer’s program of interspersed sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage would be to Baroque-Classical enthusiasts as well as to contemporary experimental music fans. After the last piece was played in this 60-minute program, many in the audience at the Terrace Theater rose to their feet because they wanted more.
With a piano stool between the two keyboards of two Steinways — one, the usual concert grand; the other, prepared (with things inserted into the piano strings to alter the sound) — Greilsammer, known for his innovative presentations of Mozart, played eight Scarlatti sonatas on the standard Steinway and seven Cage sonatas on the prepared piano. Beginning with the melancholic and quiet Sonata in D minor K. 213 by Scarlatti, it was fun to see the pianist conclude that literally and figuratively moving performance (and each thereafter) by dropping the sheet music on the floor and then swiveling on his stool to the prepared piano to play Cage’s rhythmically changing “Sonata No. 14,” which sounds a lot like a clock ticking.
Whether each pairing of sonatas spoke to each other or afforded notable comparisons has a good deal to do with a repeating compositional format (binary form) but, to the uninformed ear, the overall effect of the alternating old and new sonatas with their own soundscape was a banquet of pleasing exotic sounds. Among the favorite pairings for this reviewer were Scarlatti’s joyful but reflective Sonata in E Major K. 381 with Cage’s splashy Caribbean Afro-beat Sonata No. 12; the high and low notes with hand crossovers in Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor K. 87 juxtaposed with the jolting low notes of Cage’s Sonata No. 1; and the regal, processional Scarlatti Sonata in E Major K. 531 with the jazzy, repetitive Cage Sonata No. 5.
Had Greilsammer chosen to play the Scarlatti sonatas on a period instrument such as a harpsichord, the effect would not have been as dramatic. For his well-deserved encore, this spirited mastermind of the piano chose to play Scarlatti, as he put it, “on the wrong piano” — the prepared piano.