Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra presents Shen Lu in Review

Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra presents Shen Lu in Review

2014 Hilton Head International Piano Competition Winner’s Recital
Shen Lu, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 8, 2014


An interesting recital was presented by the winner of the 2014 Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Shen Lu. While there were many moments of great beauty, he is not a “finished” pianist. (Who among us is?) I appreciated his total immersion in the music, but have some reservations, which will follow below. He is obviously well taught and has considerable emotional immersion in the music, although at age 29, perhaps I expected a more complete artist. His strengths are fleet fingers, a flexible, relaxed technique, and ravishing soft dynamics.

His program suffered from an excess of unusual choices, beginning with two Scarlatti sonatas, which were played with dreamy tones, though not unstylishly. Neither contained the customary sparkle that contest winners customarily resort to, though I appreciated his unique introversion. Next came the famous Beethoven “orphan,” the Andante favori, which old Ludwig had the good sense to remove as the central (slow) movement from the Waldstein sonata, adding the famous Introduzione instead. This work, however, has great integrity in its unfolding of continuous variation. Mr. Shen did not find the maximum magic in the key change to D-Flat Major, which occurs three times within the piece. This work is also essentially introspective, which Mr. Shen brought out nicely.

The first half concluded with Ravel’s Miroirs, an elusive body of work that perplexed even Ravel’s friends, members of the Apaches artist group of early twentieth century Paris. Mr. Shen’s amazingly fluid technique enabled him to negotiate the fearsome complexities of the score with ease, although the music could have used more clarity, dry wit, and irony. Ravel’s mirror-gazing needs a truly empathetic soul, not a skilled make-up artist. The best pieces were: the Noctuelles (Night Moths), whose fragile flittings were evoked beautifully, but with too much rubato, Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds), whose flight amid the “torpor of a summer evening” (Ravel) was beautiful yet tragic, and La Vallée des cloches (The Valley of the Bells), which Ravel insisted was inspired not by a picturesque Alpine valley, but by the tolling of Paris’ church bells at noon. Mr. Shen clarified textures in the Une Barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean), but at the cost of leaving out some of the (many) notes. The famous Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) was dispatched at a dizzyingly fast tempo, thereby losing much of the character of the Spanish fool. His double glissandi were played softly, thereby avoiding calluses and bleeding fingers.

After intermission, Mr. Shen spent a great deal of pianistic capital on Tan Dun’s Opus 1: Eight Memories in Watercolor. Mr. Shen’s bio states his commitment to contemporary Chinese music. Although the set was played with total involvement, the music’s derivative nature could not be hidden: Debussy mainly, with hints of Bartók in his “For Children” mode. I am a great admirer of Tan Dun’s music, and I also love to explore the various composers’ “Opus ones,” but this set didn’t add much credit to either composer or pianist.

Finally, Mr. Shen negotiated the fierce demands of Rachmaninoff’s first set of Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33. Here, his tone turned stereotypically “Russian,” if by that one means more aggressive, extroverted, even harsh. I have heard these pieces performed with greater linear clarity, although Mr. Shen’s total immersion was wonderful to behold. A brief memory lapse didn’t derail his poise or concentration. Rachmaninoff resisted assigning specific programs to these pieces, and they can well be appreciated simply as very difficult studies in the possibilities of piano sonority, without any further associations.

He favored the enthusiastic and large audience with two encores: a Prelude by Swiss composer Frank Martin, and a lyrical piece by (if I heard correctly) Chen Peixun. A word to those contemporary Chinese composers: please try not to imitate Debussy.