New Festival Lets Pianists Be Themselves (Like You Could Stop Them)

Ken Iisaka on August 29, 2017
Pianist Bobby Mitchell | Credit:Jiyang Chen

Summer is a festival season and every year the roster changes slightly. This year, a new festival was inaugurated in the city by the bay: the San Francisco International Piano Festival, a celebration of piano music from Bach to world premieres.

Rather than being held in one location, the Piano Festival spread itself over multiple locations, from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where the opening and closing concerts were held, to smaller venues such as the venerable Berkeley Piano Club, the Freight and Salvage, and even a piano store in Walnut Creek.

Entrance to PianoFight

But perhaps the most unexpected venue was the curiously named PianoFight, a bar and an entertainment venue in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood. The rowdy crowd, waiting for a different performance in another room unfortunately obscured the rhythmic, jazz-infused Piano Sonata (1998) by Stephen Hartke, performed by Jeff LaDeur. However, the second pianist of the evening, Bobby Mitchell, began with getting the crowd to chant, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” or People United Shall Never be Defeated, a protest anthem against the authoritarian Pinochet regime in the 1970s which inspired American composer, Frederic Rzewski to write a set of 36 variations. As the crowd chanted, Mitchell dove deep into the epic journey with utmost conviction and raw passion. It was a particularly poignant moment, given recent events that stirred much anger and protest.

The variations, in groups of 6, have been compared to the Bach Goldberg Variations. Each of the variations depicts a different emotional state, from desperation to anger to hope. Mitchell wove them together with bold lyricism, sometimes obscured by the torrent of dissonant chords in the score. The struggles depicted within the performance reflected the struggles of the protesters.

Jeffrey LaDeur

The closing concert Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was an entirely different, and more formal affair. Just before the concert, the director Jeff LaDeur explained the genesis of the festival:

It is the endeavor of a group of solo pianists, named New Piano Collective, with members who met at the Eastman School of Music. After a successful partnership with the Old First Concerts to present weekend recitals, LaDeur saw an opportunity to present a week of concerts, while giving a carte blanche to each of the members. His role was not to dictate the programs, but to assemble concerts from the program proposals from each of the artists. He stressed that the works presented were central to each of the artists and an expression of their individual pursuits.

The concert began with a disciplined reading of Haydn’s Sonata in E Major and illuminating selections from Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux by American pianist Albert Kim. Then, Korean pianist Eunmi Ko took the audience on a history lesson of postwar South Korea, then under dictatorship, which centered around the Korean-German composer-dissident, Isang Yun (1917-1995).

Eunmi Ko

Ko commissioned works from some 10 composers as a tribute to commemorate the centennial of Yun’s birth and his life. The compositions had their world premiere at this concert. Varying in styles from Ingrid Stölzel’s Unus Mundus, a Webernesque miniature with a singular focus on A440, to Eduardo Costa Roldan’s Ravel-like Imjing, Ko exhibited control of the most minute details, with chandelier-like clarity and colors. Despite the difficulty of some of the scores, Ko delivered them all with conviction and a fluidity that transfigured the room into a kaleidoscopic world with shimmering points of colors.

After an intermission, Bobby Mitchell returned to Rzewski again, with Ruins (2015). Mitchell’s evocative reading of its persistent, descending chromatic shifts into the dark abyss, conveyed diametrically opposed senses of hopelessness and hope.

The concert and the festival concluded with an indulgent reading of Chopin’s Sonata in B Minor, Op.58 by Mitchell. Focusing more on inner voices and counterpoints, along with volatile tempi, the interpretation left me with more questions than answers.

LeDeur is adamant that the festival will return next summer, with a broader program, but while maintaining the goal of allowing the artists to express their own voices. Given the richness of the program presented in its inaugural year, I cannot wait to see how it will develop next year.