CONCERT REVIEW Electrifying performance of contempo-music

Pianist Vicky Chow captivates with avant-garde classical music of the 21st century

Artistically, October is often a busy month at MIT, and this year is no exception. Vicky Chow’s recital, as part of the Bang on a Can Residency (sponsored by MIT Music and Theatre Arts department) was the first notable musical event of October. This concert was highly anticipated, given the artist’s strong ties with Bang on a Can All-Stars, a chamber ensemble renowned for its free and experimental approaches aimed at blurring the distinction between all forms of music. Chow’s recital was a vivid demonstration of piano contemporary music, showcasing the possibilities of the instrument extended with the aid of computer generated effects. While this contemporary music might initially sound inaccessible and strange, the showmanship of Chow and her feisty technique kept the audience engaged and thoroughly entertained. In many ways, this recital was a veritable eye-opener, offering a glimpse of the distant future of classical music (and music in general), and highlighting the enormous range of the expressive possibilities of the piano, most of them still untapped today.

As an effective performer of contemporary music, Chow has skillfully combined a solid, traditional training with an inclination for experimentation. Her playing highlighted not only a sparkling technique, but also a remarkable emotional depth. By dubbing her recital, “The Art of Groove,” Chow specifically hints at the underlying emotional state, highly contagious and often hypnotic that her performance of contemporary music often depicts. Most of the pieces on her program deal with subconscious torments, unsettling, cyclical and often ambivalent emotions. Titles such as “Phantom Limb” (by Daniel Wohl), “Doppelganger”, “Harlequin”, “Loop” (by Ryan Francis), “Dream” (by John Cage) ostensibly illustrate this point.

The raw quality of the emotional landscape of contemporary music requires a strong musical presence from the performer, both in the technical and interpretational realms. Chow displayed an unabashed composure, tackling fearlessly and expressively both the flashy virtuosic passages and the more subdued, often drone-like, seemingly repetitive introspective interludes. Her precise technique and amazing endurance were instrumental to her buoyant rendition of “In bounds”, written by Professor Evan Ziporyn. “In bounds” sounded extremely taxing for the performer, who embarks on a perpetually moving, yet hardly advancing musical marathon, while the audience becomes entranced in the mind-boggling sound frenzy. Yet, Chow earned a great deal of admiration and awe by powering through this piece and barely breaking a sweat.

The high point of the concert was the piece “Vick(i/y)” by Andy Akiho, a sizable fantastic work for prepared piano, written for and dedicated in part to Chow. In fact, the composer himself was present and helped with the preparation: by installing select mutes on the piano strings and then amplifying the subsequent sounds, one can drastically change the timber of the piano. The changes can be so diverse that on a recording, the piece would sound as if performed by a percussion ensemble. Indeed, “Vick(i/y)” aptly educates on the percussive nature of the sounds on the piano and offers ample suggestions on how it can be extended. The piece abounds in unconventional techniques, including direct string strumming, plucking, as well as scratching. All these effects require a new dimension of the performer, who must be at the same time an athletic percussionist, as well as a pianist. Moreover, they require a more intimate connection with the instrument, akin to the one typical of string players. Such a piece also brings into the spotlight the gargantuan size of a nine-foot concert piano, strongly contrasting with the size of the performer. Chow’s nimble presence and graceful musical choreography around the massive instrument was therefore intensely mesmerizing. Musically, the piece was also satisfying, the novel percussive sounds being featured in unexpected and refreshing harmonic instances.

The recital ended with the Boston premiere of “Morning Tale” (by Jakub Ciupinski), a suite for piano and electronics. While the music here is written in a more traditional style, the interplay between the live performance and the computer generated sounds (pre-recorded) makes the piece sound extremely fresh and appealing. By strategically placing the speakers inside the piano, the digital effects seem organic to the music and blend seamlessly with the sound of the piano. Ms.Chow delivered a thoroughly enjoyable performance, full of dynamism, highlighting both the soulful character of the slow movements and the total exuberance of the energetic finale.

Vicky Chow performs again this Friday and Saturday at Cutler Majestic Theatre, when she rejoins the Bang on a Can All-Star group for the opera “A House in Bali” by Evan Ziporyn.