Kara Huber, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 16, 2017
An absolutely dazzling New York solo debut was given this week by American pianist Kara Huber. If that is “cutting to the chase” rather quickly, compared to the usual scene-setting introduction, I figured I’d better commit it to paper quickly before I might start to believe that the whole evening was a mirage. It was not, of course, a mirage – but a very rare achievement, one that those without the regular habit of attending concerts will have sadly missed. There are many fine players out there today, without question, but to hear such a fiendishly difficult program presented with such seemingly effortless polish, maturity, insight, grace, and stamina to burn leaves one simply dumbfounded – and yes, this is coming from a reviewer who has played (and taught) a sufficient amount of the same repertoire to develop some strong opinions.
One noticed first the interesting program itself, beautifully conceived to open with four of the Etudes by David Rakowski (b. 1958), a major work of Joan Tower (b. 1938), three confections of Earl Wild (from Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs), and, after intermission, the complete Op. 32 (Thirteen Preludes) of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The general trajectory led the listener in reverse chronology from the bright and brash hues of the witty Rakowski into the sometimes dark ruminations of Rachmaninoff’s 1910 opus, with a change of wardrobe to match. Suffice it to say that it worked.
Incidentally, Ms. Huber has a captivating stage presence, but as this reviewer is indifferent as to whether pianists look like trolls, goblins, or goddesses, that aspect is a plus more for the visually oriented mobs.
One noticed next that there was a substantial set of credentials in Ms. Huber’s biographical notes (for more, see www.karahuber.com) – but again, many years of reading these have made it all fade into so much verbiage. She has done quite a lot, but undoubtedly there is much more to come.
One noticed next: the playing! Opening with Rakowski’s Etude #52, Moody’s Blues (2003), Ms. Huber made short work of this perpetual motion chordal toccata, exhibiting fearless steadiness, riveting machine wrists, and charisma to boot. I am actually not a huge fan of this “Rock and Roll Etude on repeated chords” but it was such an invigorating opening in qualified hands that it won one over. Following (with an unannounced switching of order) came the Etude #25, Fists of Fury (1999). Again, Ms. Huber rode it as a vehicle for her prodigious pianistic skills. The next, Etude #30 A Gliss is Just a Gliss (2000), was a sheer delight in playful glissando acrobatics, and the conclusion, Etude #68 Absofunkinlutely (2005) captured the audience with its infectious and energetic “funk” rhythms. Mr. Rakowski is to be treasured for livening up the piano repertoire with close to 100 of these often humorous and appealing etudes on different facets of pianism (pianists who did not know that: get to work!). Ms. Huber, though, is to be commended for tackling such formidable challenges with ease and panache. One could only imagine the joy for Mr. Rakowski, who was present for a bow.
Continuing in the contemporary music vein, Ms. Huber performed the work entitled No Longer Very Clear by Joan Tower, one of the pillars in the world of American composers today. Each of the four movements relates to a line from the John Ashbery poem, “No Longer Very Clear,” including Holding a Daisy (1996), Or Like a … an Engine (1994), Vast Antique Cubes (2000), and Throbbing Still (2000). It is a challenging and evocative work, thorny, and of great scope (and lasting close to 18 minutes in duration), and Ms. Huber was as persuasive in interpreting it as one could hope for from any pianist. The composer, who was present for a bow, appeared thrilled, and one can easily see why. One expects young composers to be lining up in hopes that Ms. Huber will champion their works.
Three of Earl Wild’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs (1989) capped off the first half with more immediately appealing “hummable” audience pleasers. We heard The Man I Love, Embraceable You, and I Got Rhythm, much-appreciated gems which showed a touch of Ms. Huber’s flair for good old-fashioned melody with frothy filigree.
One needed to recover from exhaustion just thinking about the energy involved in such a demanding first half, but the second half featured none other than the complete 13 Preludes Op. 32 (1910) by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Preludes in general may not be as overtly rigorous as some of the larger works or even the Etudes-Tableaux, but – make no mistake – these are fiercely demanding works, obviously more so when played as a set. They were, in a word, flawless. Let’s repeat that: flawless! Not only could Ms. Huber’s performances go straight to disc with minimal edits, but they were interpreted beautifully lucidly, with no wallowing or self-indulgence. Each possessed a sense of shape and direction in every phrase, a keen awareness of the overall composition, and ample technique for each challenge. Moving from delicacy to power, from extroverted drama to quiet solemnity, the miracle of Rachmaninoff’s composition shone through, a testament to this superb performer. A highlight was the E minor Prelude (No. 4), which emerged as no “mere” Prelude, but epic in scope.
Consistent with the success of the evening were the very helpful program notes by John Bowen. On a critical note, there probably ought to have been attribution for twelve of the Preludes’ thirteen thumbnail descriptions, which one realized upon reading the twelfth, an especially beautiful one that cited “harp-like figurations running like water down the window-panes of a Russian dacha.” Those words originated in David Fanning’s excellent notes for a Steven Osborne Hyperion CD. Surely there was no intent on Mr. Bowen’s part to claim credit (as there were quotation marks for each characterization), yet still it seems that Mr. Fanning deserved a nod. Aside from that omission, kudos for such an effort to render the music accessible.
One had the sense that Ms. Huber could have played several more recitals after her standing ovation, but she wisely let Rachmaninoff have the last word. What a smashing debut!