October 6, 2013

Keyboard Fireworks From ZOFO

Noe Valley Chamber Music
By Steven Winn

ZOFOIn a preconcert talk, Keisuke Nakagoshi, of the San Francisco–based piano duo ZOFO, said he sometimes wasn’t sure whether it was he or his keyboard partner, Eva-Maria Zimmermann, who had played a particular note. The Sunday afternoon audience at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco chuckled politely. But there must have been some, during the torrent of notes that followed over the 90 minutes of a brawny, all-American program, who wondered how the performers ever kept things straight in the complex side-by-side choreography that four-handed piano music requires.

As if to confirm that it’s hard to tell the dancer from the dance in this most intimately physical form of chamber music, the ZOFO players traded places on the bench twice, midpiece, in a luscious and exciting opener of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. Executed with fetching slyness, the double switcheroo was fun to watch. But the real action was in the music, which ZOFO (the name means “20-finger orchestra”) carried off with attention-getting and sometimes counterintuitive zest.

Right from the start it was clear that Zimmermann and Nakagoshi are estimable and independent forces. Phrases kept flying off, from either set of hands, in sudden, surprising ways — an accent here, a dynamic feint there, a bewitchingly rolled chord from Zimmermann in the upper part. It was like witnessing a couple having it out, in the best possible way, on the dance floor. Neither partner was too shy to show off a particular, distinctive move. The unity came in the rhythmically taut fusion of occasionally contrary forces. It gave the Gershwin showpiece a sense of spontaneity, seductiveness, and suspense.

Presented as the 21st season opener of Noe Valley Chamber Music, in its current offsite venue, the concert embraced dance overtly for the rest of the first half. In Allen Shawn’s Three Dance Portraits, inspired (respectively) by jazz, Latin music, and hard rock, the highlight came first, in a cunningly shaped “Lilting.” Nakagoshi planted the seeds of momentum with his driving rhythms in the bass, answered by Zimmermann’s mighty octaves and rich chord work above. After a bland “Grazioso,” ZOFO unleashed the big power chords in “Hard-edged,” made all the more electric by tense, sustained rests that seemed to amplify the next outburst.

Neither partner was too shy to show off a particular, distinctive move. … It gave the Gershwin showpiece a sense of spontaneity, seductiveness, and suspense.

Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs got a splendid, multihued reading. Nakagoshi encouraged listeners to approach the piece “cinematically,” by making up their own programmatic narrative. The composer himself had laid out a set of locations for the six movements in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1914. The lobby bustled in the opening Waltz, then came to order with Zimmermann’s flowing, charmingly voiced first subject. The Pas de Deux, set in the corner of the ballroom, ranged from something grave and deliberate to a more-urgent mood. The Two-Step was both feathery and a little frantic. An air of solemnity hung over the Hesitation-Tango, brought to breathing life in the clouds of denser harmonies that gathered like a storm behind a final, comic fillip. A fleet and almost feckless Gallop brought the proceedings to a gratifying close.

Brief Fantastical Figure

The second half of the program was devoted to two works written for ZOFO. Both composers offered short remarks before the performances.

Nicholas Pavkovic originally composed his Chimera for player piano, a mechanical device he deemed slightly “creepy.” When ZOFO wanted a crack at the piece, the composer offered a pared-down transcription. Zimmermann and Nakagoshi countered with a more-elaborate version, which Pavkovic said he was hearing for the first time Sunday.

The duo’s flare for a big bright sound, rhythmic acuity, and bravura passagework was on full display.

Brief as it was, Chimera made a delightful first impression. Opening with a robotic spattering of notes across the keyboard, the piece panned open with a contrasting melody that sounded like a Bach fugue subject refracted through some kind of auditory prism. The spattering bloomed into broken chords and runs that seemed to catch reflected glints of the lyrical theme. ZOFO gave it all a sense of serious playfulness, shading at times into something almost heartsick. This ever-changing Chimera exerted its hold even as it seemed to scatter into space at the end.

Gabriela Lena Frank found inspiration for her Sonata Serrana No. 1 in Andean mountain music. She also referenced Ginastera and Bartók in her introduction. Meaty, richly varied, and sometimes overwrought, the four-movement work opened with craggy, angular eruptions. Passages of jauntiness and grandeur led to a powerful sequence of ascending chords and an arresting climax. The Scherzo Nocturno conjured its nighttime mood with a somber, almost ominous theme in the bass, along with scurrying, highly chromatic figures in the upper reaches. The Adagio, invoking dusk, bogged down in clotted harmonies and quivering tremolos. A final “Karnavalito” brimmed over with broad-handed chord work, blurringly repeated notes, a sweet passage of parallel runs, and wind-whipped snippets of melody.

If the sum effect of Frank’s Sonata was a certain too-muchness, ZOFO never wavered. The duo’s flare for a big bright sound, rhythmic acuity, and bravura passagework was on full display, both here and elsewhere through the afternoon. While the program as a whole showcased those strengths over more-supple interplay, the American fireworks at St. Mark’s left a gaudy, heady afterglow.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.