Skip to content Skip to navigation

When lyricism triumphs

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Tue Dec 1st, 2015

Melvin Chen played Schubert's Sonata No 18 at The Bard Conservatory on Monday night, Nov. 30

Melvin Chen, assistant Dean at Yale’s School of Music, performed at Bard’s Bitó Building on the last evening of November. He offered a program of what I would call “Lyricism Now and Then.” Opening with an improvised Prelude composed from melodic elements from the program he was about to play, it was clear that Chen possessed a sure lyrical touch. The Prelude sounded to my ear like a John Field Nocturne set loose to free-style improvisation. (Irishman John Field had invented the Nocturne in St. Petersburg; when Chopin heard it, he perfected it.) The Prelude meandered in a meditative manner that generated excitement.

“December 1952” by Earle Brown featured an abstract open score (shapes to riff from) on which the pianist was to improvise. This, too, offered excitement with genuine suspense: in where what direction might be taken—a genteel jazz sensibility flowing at work.

 I found Jaroslaw Kapuscinski’s “Juicy” (2015) considerably less compelling—its brittle ironies coldly mechanical. The music was supplemented by a Parisian “score following software” projected on a large screen. This, too, appeared programmatic and artificial, fluctuating from a corny fruit salad romp that jumped and cavorted, then collapsed into quirkily-stained ugly irrelevances, in shape and color.

“Shadows” (2015) by Bard graduate Jason Freeman, charmingly present in the audience, contained more emotion and deeper lyricism, especially the third movement “Perpetual Quiet,” which I greatly relished and would love to hear again. This, too, had “score following software” that enabled Chen to present a spontaneous dialogue with the composer, yet I found the jittering geometric diagrams distracting and dully repetitive. But once more I heard the enchanting and whispering ghost of John Field in lyricism and melody. The second half of the program presented Franz Schubert’s Sonata No. 18 in G major, D 894. Usually a glitzy showpiece of prima donna exuberance, Chen endowed it with more gravitas by slowing the rhythm ever so slightly. I found the second movement Andante to be more abstract than one usually expects of Schubert, and it made me think of Schumann exercising.

The last two movements were a triumph wherein Chen was able to cast a retrospective glow of past and present, personal life and social life, competing as if in the memory of the composer, reflecting on the virtues of these two diverse departments in Schubert’s hectic life. The last movement was an exceptionally fervid triumph where pianistic technique melted into retrospective emotion, endowing this piece with a dignity well beyond its traditional showpiece reputation.