Fanfare magazine cited Dr. Tu’s “Chameleon-like ability to move between composers.” Fanfare’s observation provided an apt overview for his guest recital entitled “Ivory Menagerie: Music Inspired by Animals” at West Texas A & M University’s Northern Recitsl Hall, February 24, to inaugurate the Grace Hamilton Piano Festival.
Taiwanese-born, but receiving graduate degrees from Julliard, Dr. Tu, who serves as Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Florida, has become an extraordinary keyboardest of international repute.
A lucky Panhandle audience was indeed fortunate to hear his intuitive, nuanced style, which teases rather than pounds sound from the keyboard. And, those in attendance heard one to three selections about animals from a menagerie of twelve composers, ranging over a span of three centuries.
A sampling of the composers and their works will have to sufice.
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), though noted for his super-saccharin Versailles court music showed a flar for flippancy and humor in his Le Rappel des Oisueaux. The introduction announces right-handed glissando sequences in a happy, spring-morning manner, which become the theme throughout. The left hand offers only an occasionial contrapuntal echo. In nature, as in music, the upper-level songbirds get the nmost attention.
Perhaps the composer, tiring of all the bewigged, cosmetically-caked pomposity of the Versailles court, wrote something just for his own fun. And, that is exactly how Dr. Tu player it: light; airy and avian.
Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), a late Romantic composer, created Papillon as the first of his Opus 43 lyrical pieces in 1886. The work begins with a cascade of arpegiations, an image of a gentle brook with butterflies dancing, an image sustained throughout the work. Forceful and assertive are not adjectives applicable to Lepidoptera, as they add an element of graceful, unpretentious beauty to life.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composed St. Francois d’Assise: La predication aux oiseaux, his Sermon to the Birds, in 1863, one of two legends he wrote for the piano and then orchestrated. This piece referenced a legend of St. Fancis, who, traveling with companions, came to a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. According to the narrative, he told his fellows to wait for him as he preached to his sisters, the birds. Not one bird took flight during his homily.
The work is in A major, which Liszt used for his religious works, and is one of the few times he utilized the keyboard for onomatopoeia. Under the deft touch of Hsiang Tu, it worked!
As with the Rameau and Grieg, the opening features righthanded arpeggios and two-note trills bookended by left-handed glisandos: bird-soing at its most pleasant. Variations persist until 3:30, when the left begins a simple melody, obviously the saint speaking. According to the legend, he told the birds that they had much for which to be thankful, so that they should praise God with their song.
At 4:50, the melody shifts to both hands playing a reverent, liturgical line which increases in strength, soaring like a heavenly vision. At 5:30 the work alters, and we hear the desultory response of a few of the birds, perhaps the Passeriformic version of “Amen, Brother!” A soft monophonic suggest Francis has resumed preaching.
At 7:00 the line broadens and becomes more dramatic, emphasizing the conviction of the saint, whereas the former emphasized his compassion and kindness. Francis, in the mind of Liszt, was a dynamic preacher, whether to lost human souls, or to the pure souls of animals, all getting the same message, Assisi-style.
At 8:05, after a tapering off, the piece becomes reverential, reverting to the simple left-handed monophonic message alternating with brid chirp, ending with a soft avian nattering that resolves in a single note.
This work epitomizes the enigma that is Franz Liszt: sinner and saint in unequal measure. He abandoned his life of immoral anarchy after the deaths of two of his illegitimate children and turned his thoughts heaven-ward. This was when he composed St. Francois, a work in which he, contrary to his former demonic hubris, shows great humility, standing in awe of this great saint and asking his listeners to do the same.
The piece is surely one of Liszt’s greatest works, and Hsiang Tu actualized its potential magnificently!
To conclude, Dr. Tu played two works by William Bolcom (b. 1938), former professor at the U. of Michigan and winner of both a Pulitzer and a Grammy. For California Porcupine Rag think Scott Joplin, then think a chorus line of porcupines doing a happy dance. A stretch-well, the music will prick your imagination and make you smile.
For those interested in more playtime with the animals, Dr. Tu has all of these works, and more on his recently-released Bestiary on Ivory. Go to Hsiangtu.com.
What a rich evening in the arts, and to think it was free and open to the public! Such events are common here in Cowboy Country, and for this we say, with gratitude and pride:
Keep Amarillo Artsy!
Keep Austin Weird!
Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!