Concert review: Adam Gyorgy ‘Contrast’ Tour 22 Oct 2013 – by Soo Kian Hing

adamgyorgycontrasttourConcert Review: The “Contrast” Tour, 26 October 2013, Esplanade Concert Hall

Piano Recital: The Contrast Tour

Mozart Sonata in C major KV 330
I. Allegro Moderato
II. Andante Cantabile
III. Allegretto

F. Mendelssohn – F. Liszt – V. Horowitz – Adam Gyorgy  Wedding March and Variations

Adam Gyorgy: A Day In New York

Adam Gyorgy, piano

7.30pm, 22 Oct 2013, Esplanade Concert Hall.

Concert review by Soo Kian Hing

Singapore more than marks just another leg on Adam Gyorgy’s “Contrast” World Tour. In fact, Gyorgy has been coming to Asia, specifically Singapore and Indonesia, every year for the past seven years, to teach students and to hold masterclasses and talks for aspiring young pianists. On his fan page, students look forward to his return every year like an old friend come to visit; indeed, at the post-concert autograph session he was endlessly charming. He chatted and posed for photographs with all his fans, especially the kids, like they were his best friends, even while bending and squatting all the time due to his lanky six-foot-plus frame.

The ‘Contrast’ tour concerts are so-named because Gyorgy programmes the old traditional classical warhorses alongside his own composition, ‘A Day In New York’, which in his own words is ‘an improvised piece, so it changes all the time’. But more on that later. Gyorgy opened the concert with Mozart’s C major Sonata, K330, one of the sonatas written in the Galant style, emphasising homophony and veering away from the complex ornamentation and harmonies of the Baroque period. Even though the piece is technically easy for a world-class pianist like Gyorgy, he played it with a lightness and sensitivity that gave us a glimpse into the more carefree moments of Mozart’s world.

The second piece was the undisputed virtuoso showpiece of the evening. The Wedding March — now a popular recessional played at Western weddings — was originally written by Mendelssohn as incidental music for orchestra, for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt as a Concert Paraphrase (a fancy name for his piano transcriptions), and typically for Liszt, it was a technically difficult piece. Along came Vladimir Horowitz, who then upped the virtuosity factor, weaving melodies together into a tour-de-force for piano. For years, even top pianists had difficulty transcribing by ear all the notes of this arrangement (Horowitz did not have the habit of writing down his transcriptions). Adam Gyorgy played his own version of this piece — the third-in-line arranger, so to speak, because his take definitely echoes Horowitz, but on an even grander scale. Where Horowitz’s is quirky and humorous, Adam’s arrangement is in the form of variations, each with its own particular technical twist, all very Lisztian in style and spirit.

Overall in his version, the more grandiose thunder of the larger variations is balanced out by bright scintillating flourishes in the smaller ones; given such a simple melody with limited harmonic progressions, one is wont to make the piece more technically impossible than is musically logical. It verges on the technically impossible, but Gyorgy never descends into self-indulgent noteplay, and his tenuous hold on the melodic line underlines the intellectual rigour of his transcription and strong narrative element of this work. Performance-wise, Gyorgy also followed in the tradition of the old masters; with an economy of body movement and lack of dramatic posturing or facial expression.

After the intermission, Gyorgy showed us his more heart-on-sleeves style. In ‘Contrast’ to the written classical form of the first half, “A Day In New York” is a free-form improvised work, and is probably more of a contemporary mood-piece than classical, even to me (and I am quite a liberal glutton when it comes to music). In fact, the admittedly New-Agey “Improvisations” that Gyorgy used to open his concerts with, before he decided to programme “A Day In New York” starting last year, raised much controversy among critics who could not comprehend his unconventional programming. Is classical music defined only by classical musicians? If ‘muzak’ — as his langurous improvisations were once panned by some critics — were played by a classical pianist who at the same sitting also played the most difficult Liszt, does it become something worth more than pedestrian fare?

One only has to look back at Gyorgy’s concert at the Liszt Academy in 2005 with a quartet of musician friends, to realise that music holds no boundary or even categorisation for him. At that concert, they played renditions of two popular tunes from Disney movies, “The Little Mermaid” and “Toy Story”. Even with their deep-seated classical training, the musicians chose to play the tunes as they were, without bravura or even embellishments; the result was heartfelt and tender, even poignant at times. This, again, remains true to Gyorgy’s philosophy of drawing houses upside-down: performing art and music in a manner that the audience understands and enjoys, rather than a narcissistic exercise in self-promotion or bravura.

“A Day In New York”, is about how Gyorgy goes about his day in the Big Apple, what he thinks about, what he feels, his reactions and his reflections on the city. It has been in his programme for roughly a year (or more), and as his perspective changes as a person, so does the piece — at every performance it is played differently, and that is the beauty of it. A two-note motif pervades the piece and brings structural integrity to an otherwise sprawling leisurely narrative of a day. Starting with quiet repetitive notes, one could almost picture the pre-dawn quietude of a slumbering city, slowly awakening to the first rays of the rising sun. Throughout the initial segment, the music is rather generically cosmopolitan, reminiscent of music accompanying inspiration videos. Nonetheless, the message is clear: this is the soundscape of Adam’s mind. He sets his nebulous, meandering thoughts to music, inviting the audience into his world, once again drawing his world upside-down for us to see.

The piece gains more complexity in its second half, albeit only in chord structure, although he displays none of the virtuosity that he is known for as a Liszt player. His piece takes us past Central Park and down the East River, and the day gets busier, evoking images of an exotic bazaar — somewhere in Central Europe, perhaps? Did I imagine it? There it is again! Slowly, chord by chord, interspersed in between the New York crowd, a bustling marketplace forms with haggling housewives under a lazy European sun, with rolling grassy plains beyond the horizon. Where has Gyorgy transported us to?

As it turns out, Gyorgy deftly worked two Hungarian folk tunes, “The Spring Wind”, and “I Departed From My Beloved Country”, in between the cosmopolitan American musical landscape. Through this juxtaposition, Gyorgy tells us of his homesickness: his current schedule splits his time between Hungary, New York (where is he based now), Southeast Asia, and a few other countries on his tour. The yearning in his voice builds up to an overwhelming climax, and by the end completely obliterates the earlier ‘New York’ theme. The final notes ebb on a melancholic, lilting Hungarian harmony, followed by an unsettling silence for several seconds before the applause started. An audience member had reportedly called it “Gershwin meets Bartok”; but despite Adam’s insistence that his improvisations not be called ‘jazz’, I would say that this piece could well be called  ‘A Hungarian In New York’.

Gyorgy obliged with two encores: audience members who bemoan the lack of Liszt in the programme, will be heartened that he plays Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’– one of Gyorgy’s signature tunes — and Moszowski’s ‘Etincelles’. ‘La Campanella’ was unhurried but satisfying — played with “a warm heart and a cold head”, as he calls it. With ‘Etincelles’, Gyorgy recalls another virtuosic pianist of the Russian school (very close to the Hungarian school, he points out) whose transcriptions Gyorgy has modeled his own after: the late Vladimir Horowitz, for whom this little character-piece was a favourite encore. But where Horowitz’s playing sparkled with humour and dazzled with aplomb, Adam’s rendition is more grounded and less flighty, but no less beautiful.

Through all the works, Adam’s technique is heavily grounded in the virtuoso school, but technique is secondary to his readings, which are warm but transparent at the same time. He generally avoids over-the-top bombast and hysterics, letting the pieces speak for themselves  instead. Breathing space is created with spot-on phrasing; by taking the repertoire at a less breakneck pace than is usually heard, climaxes are built up not with daredevilry but through methodical layering. His performances are refined and musically coherent, and there is an elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity that will, I believe, become his trademark.

Also read Derek Lim’s review of the same concert.

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