Sarah Chan, Pianist in Review

Sarah Chan, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center, New York, NY
October 17, 2013

Having reviewed pianist Sarah Chan in Schumann’s A Minor Concerto just this May (hers being just one of several concerti in a packed program), I wondered how the same pianist would fare in a calmer setting; five months later, Ms. Chan’s own intimate solo recital this week gave this listener (and the pianist herself) just that opportunity. Holding the reins firmly, she emerged as a confident young soloist, with solidity, strong projection, and a winning stage presence.

In a program of essentially Spanish and French music (if France is allowed to claim the Polish-born Chopin for the occasion), Ms. Chan chose mostly short works, the longest lasting from seven to nine minutes. It was an appealing array seemingly designed not to tax the layperson’s attention, so to this veteran listener it seemed to be over in a flash. I liked, though, that Ms. Chan resisted the gargantuan programming that so many young pianists’ recitals display. I also liked that Chan followed her preferences and did not feel compelled to offer a survey course on each style of the piano literature from Bach onward. There was still plenty of contrast.

Enjoying the sheer variety among works, one almost missed the fact that there was sometimes not quite as much variety within a work as one might want. The opening work, Claude Debussy’s “Bruyères” (Prélude No. 5 from Book II), was louder throughout than what I’ve usually heard, and I missed the nuance that makes small dynamic ranges colorful (the composer’s own markings for this piece ranging only from pianissimo up to mezzo-forte, aside from effects of timbre, register, and pedaling).

In Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, the range was greater, but I still wanted more nuance in the melodic inflection, without which the singing Spanish lines sound stiff. More rhythmic bending could also have helped to convey the feeling marked as nonchalamment gracieux. While Debussy was known as a pianist who avoided histrionics, he would still enjoy pushing and pulling a phrase, as demonstrated in his 1913 piano roll recording of this very work.

Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” from Miroirs, made a great pairing with the Debussy, and served as a virtuosic backdrop for the Spanish music to come. Ms. Chan expertly handled Ravel’s many challenges, among them her admirably rapid repeated notes. More of a final burst would have capped the piece off perfectly (and perhaps planning the earlier dynamic pacing accordingly), but maximizing each thrill seemed a lower priority than momentum throughout the evening.

Closing the first half were Joaquín Turina’s “Seguiriya” from Danzas Gitanas, Op. 84, Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” (“Leyenda”) from Suite Española, Op. 47, and Albeniz’s “El Albaicin” from Iberia, Book III. All three showed Ms. Chan to be a pianist of ample technique and solid command. She also has the resources to achieve a large palette of colors, which I hope she will exploit more and more. Her Iberia selection has markings ranging from ppppp through fff, so moderation can be checked at the door. For some reason the middle register of the concert grand seemed unusually heavy, eclipsing important chords in the outer registers, but Ms. Chan was unruffled.

The entire second half of the concert consisted of the music of Frédéric Chopin.  Opening with his Barcarolle, Op. 60, the pianist seemed much more comfortable than in the first half. Clearly this pianist knew the repertoire inside and out.  There was also more of the savoring of harmonic resolutions that I had been craving earlier.  A string of six Études (from both the twelve op. 25 and the twelve Op. 10) followed. The Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (“Harp”) opened the group, a gentle choice, though still too fast for my taste and again at the mercy of a dominant middle register. The best was yet to come in the Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 (“Thirds”): it sparkled brilliantly as one of the gems of the recital. There ought to be a special award for a performer who can make this devilishly difficult Étude a highlight, as it is the nemesis of so many pianists! Also quite well executed was the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (sometimes called the “Cello” Étude). Though it is a slower, more melodic Étude, it should not be considered any sort of “breather” – it is tremendously difficult to pull off the pacing and balance, and Ms. Chan did extremely well. In the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (“Octaves”), the pianist surprised us with a ferocity that had been largely hidden up to this point. At moments where many pianists grab a chance to relax, she stormed ahead, and her fearless finale was refreshing. She should keep playing these pieces to the hilt.

The Étude in C minor Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary” – mistakenly listed on the program as C-sharp minor), came off as a bit glib for this listener. Heroic gesture became efficiency and dispatch, as if the end of the recital loomed too closely to resist racing. Also, by following it (without pause) with the buoyant Étude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), its dramatic impact was further undercut. These pieces cease being mere “Études” the minute they are played in concert, so they need to be treated as any delicate works of art.

All ended with the much-loved Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. Despite a not-quite-ready left hand at the start, it closed the program overall with warmth and triumph, boding very well for things to come for Ms. Chan. She already holds an impressive list of accomplishments, academically and musically, and one expects similar achievements in her continued career. A good-sized audience gave warm ovations and received Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a parting lagniappe.

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, New York, N.Y.
May 24, 2013

New York Concert Artists and Associates continued its fifth season of concerto evenings with four staples of the piano concerto repertoire – the Schumann Concerto, the Saint-Saëns No. 2, and the 3rd and 5th by Beethoven. Combining forces with the NYCA Symphony Orchestra under excellent conductor, Eduard Zilberkant, were four young female pianists, all with impressive lists of accolades and all pursuing a doctorate or having earned one. If one needed an evidence of the difficulty of distinguishing oneself in classical music these days, one would need to look no further than the collective biographies of these young pianists. The proliferation of credentials and increased need for opportunities today underscore the value of NYCA’s mission to promote the next generation’s performers. While this evening was not one of the best in memory by this organization, one did come away thinking that the valuable orchestral experience was bound to enrich and refine the playing of each of the soloists.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous review, there are hazards in presenting so many concerti in one evening, not the least of which is a sense of haste that can beset even the most seasoned performers. There was just such a sense of haste, on this occasion, which seemed to affect all of the performances in some way or other.

Yu Jung Park, began the evening with Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor.  A work requiring a dark intensity and drama, it also requires a fierce impetus in the opening scales of the first movement; it is easy, though, to go overboard into the realm of rushing, and this seemed to be what happened. What at first was a minor discrepancy of tempo between soloist and orchestra escalated into a generally unsettled feeling that eventually took the movement off the rails. All was recovered expertly, but it is hard to recover completely from the general skittishness that results from such an occurrence. In and out of it all, one appreciated the pianist’s excellent finger work, and where she was alone, for example in the cadenza of the first movement, she seemed to find her comfort zone. It will be a joy to hear this pianist again, because she has much to offer. Her slow movement displayed beautiful sensitivity to harmonic changes, and she finished the work in fine form. She is currently working toward a DMA at Temple University, having already attended Peabody and the Korean National University of Arts. Her wide-ranging musical interests currently include Dutilleux and Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven.

The next performer, Sarah Chan, also has run the gamut credential-wise. She has earned Music degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, Peabody, and Eastman (where she obtained her doctorate), with additional studies at Le Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and at the University of Michigan. She has pursued and extra-musical education at the Sorbonne, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, and she currently teaches music and French courses at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Her Schumann Concerto had much to admire but also did not seem impervious to the spirit of dispatch that pervaded the evening. Some minor glitches, which appeared in an otherwise exciting performance, could have been avoided with just a bit more breathing room, and some climaxes could have been more potent if achieved through dynamic building rather than acceleration. Inevitably with more performance of this work there will emerge a bit more dovetailing as the lead role is passed from piano to orchestra and back, but it showed plenty of spirit and pianism, ending the first half well.

Perhaps the strongest contribution of the evening in terms of neatness and technical reliability was from Hyojung Huh, in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Again, listing myriad credentials, including degrees from Seoul National University, Westminster Choir College, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin (in subjects including choral conducting and sacred music), she demonstrated a thoroughness and seriousness of approach that carried her from start to brilliant finish. One might have wanted a bit more power to balance the orchestra, less understatement in the first movement’s effusive melodies, and a bit more joie de vivre in the work’s jaunty scherzando movement, but all in all one received the “bang for the buck” that one hopes for in this delightful piece.

The final performer of the evening was Do Haeng Jung in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (the “Emperor”). One appreciated from the start the fact that this performer took considerable time before and during the opening. This piece requires mature pacing, and it received it. It also received a big, full sound that set the tone for the nobility in this piece. Sure enough, there was again the almost obligatory snag in the first movement, but the pianist recovered to regain complete composure in the two next movements. Glancing through Ms. Jung’s biography, one reads that she has degrees from the Seoul National University and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, the latter where she is also pursuing her doctorate. What catches one’s eye is the mention of awards in collaborative performance, in addition to the usual solo prizes; indeed, Ms. Jung demonstrated a flexibility which helped hold the performance together and will continue to serve her in good stead as a concerto soloist. She ended the evening with a solid and bravura performance, receiving generous applause that undoubtedly was intended to include the cumulative efforts of the night and the close to a fine NYCA season.