- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The auditorium inside the National Academy of Sciences building is one of the musical wonders of Washington. Its visually striking projecting trapezoids are brilliantly functional, providing perhaps the most intimate acoustics in the city.

This environment proved just right for the Sunday afternoon recital by pianist Jade Simmons, whose lively program included works by established classical masters punctuated by highly unusual contemporary composers.

It was the contemporary part of the program that proved most interesting. First on tap was a set of pieces by multiethnic Cuban composer Tania Leon, “Momentum” and “Tumbao.” The former combined 12-tone techniques with Latin rhythms, while the latter blended Cuban and R&B motifs into unusual dance patterns.

Drawing on her additional experience in marching bands and percussion, Miss Simmons was perfectly at home performing these rambunctious, idiomatic pieces. The same held true for her sharp interpretation of selected “Hip-Hop Studies & Etudes for Solo Piano” by classical pianist, composer and hip-hop artist Daniel Bernard Roumain, also known as DBR.

As Miss Simmons explained to the audience beforehand, this collection of short pieces is written on three staves — two for the piano and the third serving as a musical guide for the sidemen performing with Mr. Roumain.

Because the music was tough to play with two hands, Miss Simmons’ solution was to accompany herself in two ways. For some of the pieces, she pre-recorded a studio session of percussive backgrounds. In addition, by means of a live electronic loop system, she recorded piano riffs live, feeding them back as she continued to play, in effect accompanying herself.

When combined with her own loop backs and the background percussion — all routed through the auditorium’s fine sound system — she effectively created the impression of a live techno-jazz ensemble onstage.

Unfortunately, Miss Simmons’ performances of more standard works — Gershwin’s “Three Preludes,” two of Rachmaninoff’s “Etudes-Tableaux” (Op. 39), and Chopin’s “Ballade in F minor” (Op. 52) — proved less than satisfactory. Her pedaling was often muddy; wrong notes showed up with some frequency; and her percussive approach to Gershwin often took out the melodic lines in favor of the accompaniment.

Her skill sets seemed to jell again during her performance of Samuel Barber’s “Sonata for Piano in E-flat minor” (Op 26). But alas, stating that she was somewhat indisposed, she chose to excerpt the first two movements before coming on strong in the “Adagio mesto” and final fugue.

In the end, Ms. Simmons’ uneven program proved more interesting than the average recital, but its ambition and scope may have been a bit too much to contain effectively in a single program.

★★

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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