Genevieve Feiwen Lee
Genevieve Feiwen Lee in recital for Piano Spheres | Credit: Louis Ng

Rest assured, the focus of Piano Spheres remains the piano. Still, given the innovative spirit of the now-30-year-old series, there is a margin for expansion and experimentation. Last month’s conceptual program by Vicki Ray, for instance, included an electronic keyboard, a second prepared piano, a kick drum, and guest soprano.

This month’s affair, on Tuesday, March 5 at the Colburn School’s Thayer Hall, found Genevieve Feiwen Lee at the piano but also incorporating harpsichord, toy piano, percussion tools, and most significantly, her own voice in an intriguing program dubbed “La Voix du Pianiste.” Although you may have wished for more pure pianism in the mix, Lee’s impressive variations on the singing and text-slinging pianist persona had its own special, paradigm-shifting appeal.

Genevieve Feiwen Lee
Genevieve Feiwen Lee

Lee, based in Los Angeles but with an impressive globe-spanning resume, drew on a similarly international collection of texts, in French, Italian, Sichuanese, and English, for the occasion. As she clarified to the audience, despite the evening’s abundance of text, “the language is ephemeral, so even if you don’t know the words, they will just color the music.”

Chris Castro’s A la tienne! — one of two world premieres on the program — illustrated this effect. Commissioned by Lee, the piece is a wedding toast-like miniature based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem for his friend André Salmon. It is at once celebratory and solemn.

Livia Malossi Bottignole’s Retaggio, the second world premiere of the night, takes poetic texts from Lara Cardella, Simone de Beauvoir, and more, a historical cross-section that, according to the composer’s program note, shares “a common thread — an exploration of the condition of women across various spaces and times.” Accordingly, the work’s musical language is technically demanding, neatly compassed by Lee, replete with intense flurries and suspended at the evocatively unfinished finish.

Lee’s Chinese roots came artfully to bear on Gao Ping’s six-part Daydreams, a 2019 piece which the pianist played frequently during the pandemic in online performances but here was presenting to a live audience for the first time. Ping’s work is epigrammatic and evanescent, celebrating transcendent impressions of the everyday, with and without words. The composer’s carefully balanced mosaic of small pieces includes the comic relief of “Blues for a Lost Phone,” the instrumental whirlwind of two movements titled “Dance,” and the gentle meditation of the finale, “Wind Prayer,” with piano lines and words tranquilly looping like a mantra.

After intermission, Lee returned in a more playful and absurdist mode for the 40-minute expanse of Kurt Rohde’s Famous Last Words. The instruments onstage — harpsichord, toy piano, percussion, and hidden trash bags (slyly unveiled in a later movement, “Rat-Girl”) — raised unconventional expectations. Lee hinted at hijinks to come, stepping onstage and then exiting a side door and mishandling a mysterious book.

Working from a set of five newly concocted fables by Paul Mann, Rohde designed a flexible framework for the semi-narrative structure of the piece, with an elaborate and sometimes aleatoric task list for the keyboardist-narrator. Mann’s fables have classic storytelling elements and some grisly moments along the thorny path (as with a cannibalistic real-estate opportunist in “Old Woman”). In “The Song,” the entity of the title is personified and given fictional life, while the closing “Something Found” turns existential, ending with Lee fatalistic intoning, “So one sets out again in search of the one thing that doesn’t exist. That I will never have to search for.”

It was no surprise that Lee proved to be up to Rohde’s tasks, smoothly and supply shifting between instruments while also weaving in the wise, sometimes hypnotic effect of her voice — the vocal one.