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Peter Serkin & a Tale with students

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 7th, 2018

James Jihyun Kim, Adam Romey, Peter Serkin, Claire Worsey

What’s in a tune?  Depends upon its history. Ever the historical scholar, Peter Serkin led four students in an amusing lesson, performing “Music for Winds and Piano” on Saturday in the Láslo Z. Bitó Building on the Bard College campus to a packed audience. 

Beginning with J.S. Bach’s Oboe Sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b (c. 1736), a duo between piano and oboe set the table. This is thought to be the reconstructed first version of Bach’s sonata for flute and piano, although some conjecture that it may have originally been a violin sonata in G. The opening Andante privileges the oboe over the piano; the Largo e dolce requires deep emotional feeling which Kim conjured considerable better than the opening which he had played in slightly uncertain manner of just warming up. Having established leadership over the piano, the Presto provides a competition, in which after intense struggle, the piano, with its capacity for dexterity and ability to change keys, overwhelms the valiant oboe; James Jihyun Kim’s oboe passionately delivered the truculent challenge to the piano, but Serkin’s dramatic, flexible finger runs left no doubt as to which instrument was the master.

The stage was set for Mozart to dramatize a similar contest with Quintet for piano and winds in E-flat major, K. 452. Having invented the quintet by adding a new instrument to the quartet—the clarinet—Mozart could pit four players against the piano. The opening Largo-Allegro moderato showcases the virtues of the bassoon played with adroit sensitivity by Adam Romey, the French horn played with exquisite delicacy by Claire Worsey, the clarinet ably played with clarity by Sangwon Lee, and the ready-to spar-oboe by James Jihyun Kim. All five instruments stake a modest claim to the tune. The Larghetto features amiable cooperation between these instruments where they cooperate to create new group sounds never heard before in chamber music. Mozart, in a letter, even boasted that it was the best thing he ever wrote (at the age of 32). The concluding Allegretto furnishes the lively competition for alpha instrument. There is no real contest: Serkin unleashes the power of the piano with such fierce, astonishing runs that it is clear as sunshine the piano remains the only genius standing.

After brief intermission, they tackled Beethoven’s Quintet for piano and winds in E-flat major, Op. 16. All five instruments compete in the same key as Mozart during the opening Grave-Allegro ma non troppo with the result that at the end the piano claims dominance. The other instruments are not convinced of the piano’s claim and compete, but they cannot so readily change keys, so the piano wins on points as well as sheer emotive power and range. But the cocky young genius of 25 wants to shout that he is the new man with the keys to outdo Mozart. The concluding Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo begins with Mozart’s melody stripped naked by the piano. We are taken on satirical, parodic romp of Mozart’s tune with peculiar new sounds by the piano mocking Mozart. I must admit that this piano tour-de-force was hilarious. Since I never bothered to examine Beethoven’s early work, I never knew Beethoven could be so funny.  

Serkin’s fingering was like lightning. Such a comic end to the lesson offered a warning about ambition, as well as the perils of arrogance, yet it also promoted the message that if you have the talent, flaunt it. All students were up to the mark for this extremely lively caper.