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Pianist Maki Namekawa in Virtual Recital at UCLA

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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Gertrude Stein used to say that ” the only thing that changes is what people are looking at “,which, given human nature, seems demonstrably true. And then there’s the equally demonstrable fact that the current lockdown on live musical performances due to the corona virus seems to have convinced the entire world that we’re in danger of dying any second. Many performing artists have therefore been forced to scramble to get live work, including the brilliant Japanese pianist Maki Namekawa who has had to re-think and re-structure her international career. Her 8 January 2021 concert at the Philharmonie in Paris with organist James McVinnie was cancelled so she’s lucky to have made her “virtual” live streamed debut, originally scheduled to have been at UCLA’s Royce Hall, online via Ars Electronica, Linz, so she could step out without actually being there on its stage. Her recital also reminded me of how richly international LA’s cultural scene has always been. Brit Aldous Huxley, who wrote the 1932 dystopian novel “Brave New World “, lived and worked in Santa Monica, and his fellow Brit novelist Christopher Isherwood as well as the German poet-playwright Bertolt Brecht lived there. And then there’s LA proper — Brentwood to be more precise — which had world-class emigres like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and you can’t get more world-class than that.

Namekawa’s program was appropriately international in scope. It also spanned several modern-contemporary musical schools though the barriers separating these were sometimes porous. The Brazilian composer Mozart Camargo Guarneri ( 1907-1993 ) was represented by his 1937 “Sonatina #3 in G clef ” which followed the Neo-Classical School because it’s a twentieth century take on the eighteenth century three-movement sonata layout. Guarneri spiced up the first movement with Brazilian color, gave it drive with fugal writing in the third, and let it breathe in the slow one in between. Guarneri never pushed his points and neither did Namekawa.
Austrian composer Alban Berg ( 1885- 1935 ) was represented by his Expressionist “Piano Sonata Opus 1 “( 1907-08 ) which breathes the introverted air of his fin-de-siecle Vienna but in some ways looks back to the style, if not the expressive content — his harmonies are more extreme — of Schubert and other Viennese-born or Viennese active composers like Mahler. This sonata was Berg’s first completed work when he was a student of Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg ( 1874 -1951 ), who with Berg’s fellow student Anton Webern ( 1833 -1945 ), comprised the core of The New Vienna School ( Die Neue Wiener Schule ), which, for better or worse, changed the course of music history. Berg’s sonata, like much Expressionist music is very gestural but also deeply personal so it’s easy to see why it was accepted as a masterpiece from the get go. It’s cerebral and a long-lined love song with nearly constant chromatic writing — lots of sharps and flats — throughout. Namekawa’s reading was acute and expressive but not as acute or expressive as it could have been. Her account was precise and deeply felt but lacked the requisite desperation which is more or less de rigeur when performing this kind of Expressionist work because artists in Schoenberg’s circle like the painter Richard Gerstl ( 1883 – 1908 ) were frequently at the end of their rope which was the literal case with him — he hung and ( italics ) stabbed himself after having had an affair with Schoenberg’s wife. One hopes that Gerstl’s work and that of other Austrian artists of his time can be seen again in New York’s www.neuegalerie.org on Fifth Avenue if that great city ever chooses to drop its mask and let its local and international public go in for a peek or two.

The work of Transylvania-born Hungarian-based composer Gyorgy Ligeti ( 1923-2006 ) is almost, but not quite, more of the same because his 1953 “Musica Ricercata” dates from his Webern period but tends to have a clearer rhythmic profile than the Berg “Sonata Opus 1”. It’s also enlivened by Ligeti’s wit, especially in the dance in # 8. You could call it entry-level Ligeti if you’ve only heard the Ligeti that Kubrick used in his 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey “, and in his even crazier and equally antiseptic 1980 “The Shining”. But “Musica Ricercata” works, and it’s a lot more fun than Ligeti’s pretentious snooze ” Le Grand Macabre ” ( 1974-1977 ), which San Francisco Opera presented several years ago — my take appeared in www.21st-centurymusic.com. Namekawa rendered this Ligeti incisively and with real panache.

But the real meat and potatoes on her program had to be the three-movement Philip Glass ” Piano Sonata # 1 “, which he wrote for her in 2019 when they learned it as it was coming together for both of them.Their initial working relationship began around 2008 when Glass wrote his highly virtuosic “Four Movements for Two Pianos ” for her and her pianist-conductor husband Dennis Russell Davies. Lots of people hear Glass’ work as always being more of the same, and then the same some more. But he’s gone a lot further here than in his previous works for solo piano, and his textures,colors, and rhythms are even more striking and pronounced. You get his trademark major/minor shifts, and his equally trademark arpeggios, and cross rhythms but the real revelation here is how natural and inevitable it all sounds and how surprising it often is.The harmonies sometimes go from the microscopic to the telescopic in quick succession or all at once. It’s clear, intense, complicated, and utterly musical; and strange as this may seem, some parts reminded me of the seminal French composer Pierre Boulez ( 1926-2016 ) in his three piano sonatas, not in their dry, seemingly arhythmic sections, but in the massive sonorities which come and quickly go in both. Moments are heard in their solitary grandeur or lyric delicacy as blocks and/or threads in the same time continuum. The American pianist David Tudor (1926 1996 ) helped Boulez get his piano work off the ground. Namekawa looks to have been fulfilling the equally demanding role of handmaid in the Glass here and I suspect she may be taking it around either virtually, or, God willing, live, in real time, in front of an audience who may be listening as hard as she is listening as she plays.

The Viennese Boesendorfer grand Namekawa used in her recital was responsive in each and every register, the loud moments loud but never hard, the soft ones soft but always heard.

END   JANUARY 2020 — 2 FEBRUARY 2020

C 2021 MICHAEL MCDONAGH

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