Timo Andres Constructs a Beautiful Path

Rebecca Wishnia on January 29, 2018
Timo Andres | Credit: Michael Wilson

A good DJ irons out the differences between tracks, aligning beat rates so that, come song change, no one has to stop dancing. In this sense, Timo Andres is a little like a DJ, but better, because his music is live — and you get to sit down the entire time.

At the Strand Theater on Friday, the Brooklyn-based composer and performer gave a refreshingly unorthodox piano recital through San Francisco Performances’s PIVOT series, which is focused on new music in somewhat informal settings. With respect to pitches, Andres arranged his program — weaving movements of Janáček between new piano works written by his friends — also New York-based and young — in a way that created seamless transitions between the old and new. There were no breaks, no designated periods for coughing and shifting: It was an immersive listening experience, a puritanical concertgoer’s dream.

Joseph Cornell's Untitled (Medici Princess)

An homage to the sculptor Joseph Cornell, Eric Shanfield’s Utopia Parkway is a study of possibility within the limits of strict structure — in this case, square meter and phrasing. Tiny motifs accumulate and disperse, falling tidily in the key; it’s charming and naïve music. Yet it’s also bold, in its own way: A few times, everything suddenly falls away, revealing ungainly, skeletal lines as melodically significant. I wouldn’t come to a concert for the express purpose of hearing this music, but in between darkly romantic Janáček movements, Shanfield’s work was a welcome breath of air.

Caroline Shaw’s Gustave le Gray, on the other hand, wanders through a dense harmonic world that, even as it references tonality, seems to have no rules. The work takes after Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17 No. 4 (though I also hear the Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28 No. 4, in the descending chords), but in distortion, as if recalled by a listener fixated on certain moments. Shaw takes chains of chords from their context, repeating them endlessly: Dominants descend further and further, while frenzied tremolos erupt in angular leaps.

It’s a compelling idea that comes alive in concert. Andres paced his performance well: In one chord progression, first theatrically stilted but eventually blossoming, it really did seem as if he were trying to recall some long-ago musical memory, gaining confidence as he sounded out the notes. But the piece loses its way: In the middle, a minutes-long mazurka passage, by virtue of its completeness, takes away from the haunting effect Shaw has created.

Timo Andres | Credit: Michael Wilson

In contrast, Janáček’s hour-long cycle On an Overgrown Path benefited from being broken up. Andres ingeniously interspersed select movements as a recurring motif between the new works, although the musical results were somewhat mixed. He was sometimes over-generous with the pedal, and in a few movements (“Good night,” especially) his melody-oriented approach became reductive. With little attention given to the idiomatic rhythms in the lower voice, the music, which isn’t Janáček’s most adventurous, can sound almost like Chopin. But Andres’s weightiness was wonderfully effective in “The Madonna of Frydek,” and “Come With Us!” sprang from the Shaw work with utter lightness.

The program’s heart was Christopher Cerrone’s The Arching Path. Inspired by the image of a bridge, the piece opens with difficult polyrhythms that span a good portion of the piano’s range, coupled with intricate figurations — high technical stakes, which, in Andres’s performance, paid off. He didn’t shy away from playing loudly, yet the sheer sturdiness of his rhythmic patterns imbued the movement with a meditative quality. In the dramatic and lyrical second and third movements, where Cerrone (a Rome Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist) juxtaposes murmuring tremolos and crashing dissonances, Andres delicately balanced the unyielding and expressive.

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