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Hearing the Construction of an Arch

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Oct 15th, 2018

Miri Yampolsky and Xak Bjerken

Xak Bjerken and his wife Miri Yampolsy performed an hour-long recital at Bard College’s Lázló-Bitó Conservatory Building Monday evening. Xak opened with the first three of Franz Schubert’s six Moments musicaux, perhaps Schubert’s most played pieces. This parlor room delight paints a series of moody occasions. The opening Moderato flashes a slightly boisterous atmosphere, as if one were at a loud party or in a bar with stories and jokes; the following Andantino delivers contrast with introverted lyricism, as if one was pleasantly strolling in good weather and musing; Allegro moderato, nicknamed “Air Russe” offers a pleasantly brisk run of the keyboard with high-spirited grace as if on a sleigh ride; we were off and running.

Alexander Scriabin’s late Sonata No. 9, nicknamed “Black Mass” by others (with approval by the author), was organized around a minor ninth, which resulted in haunting dissonance that was exciting as clustered dissonance defeated upstart lyrical moments. This was played thrillingly, yet I found it claustrophobic when compared to the open spaces of Scriabin’s early lyrical Preludes, although the black humor of drowning a lyrical sensibility did convey outlandish humor as Xak’s flying fingers appeared at times to be glued to particular keys.

Xak was at the birth of Steven Stucky’s Sonata for Piano (2014). They both taught at Cornell University (where both Xak and Miri are today). As colleagues and friends they appear to have had a great relationship. Xak recalled the scene when Stucky came into Xak’s office with the score of the first movement of the Sonata, which was written all in minor thirds. In five sections, Xak said it was like an arch with a middle chorale as keystone. The ghost of Scriabin’s “Black Mass” wreathed the work, yet I found more movement, more space to breathe, more pleasure in Stucky’s little masterpiece than Scriabin’s whimsically gleeful effort. There was more humor, balance to lyricism and dissonance, even though the conclusion sounded pessimistic, which was quite understandable, since this piece was Stucky’s last completed composition, possibly a self-elegy, and obviously an elegy performed by Xak for his lost friend. I was also deeply moved by the aesthetics involved.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) often had mental breakdowns. Recovering from one during the spring of 1900 in Yalta at Prince Liven’s where Rachmaninoff found himself uplifted by the company of Shalyapin, Stanislavsky, and Kalinnikov with visitations from Chekov and Gorky, Rachmaninoff cheered up enough to compose one of his most charming piano pieces, Suite no. 2, Op. 17. The long, racing, four-hand two-piano Romance offers such delirious delight that it remains impossible to hear it without succumbing to a smile. Miri was electric, spontaneous, effusive in pursuit of this delirious marvel, while Xak gave voice to inner sanity. The shorter comic Valse that followed united all four dancing fingers.

Xak concluded with Robert Schumann’s Romance in F-sharp Major, Op. 28. Xak played two of the three romances that Robert wrote for Clara Wieck in 1837 when Robert just turned 27 and they were just engaged. The overwrought radiance of F-sharp was obviously composed by Schumann’s romantic Florestan personality; Xak was a living Florestan. His performance was obviously directed toward Miri, two happily married-mirrored pianists, like Robert and Clara.

This concert exhibited the structure of an arch with Steven Stucky’s mixed perspective as the keystone, yet for the two pianists (they may have endured a long search) involved, this completed arch portrayed a happy marriage.