- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The tension mounted this past weekend at the William Kapell International Competition and Festival, now under full sail at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Just three contestants remain standing for the final face-off in Friday’s concerto round. Each will perform a full concerto in the Dekelboum Concert Hall accompanied by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Meanwhile, as the contestants duke it out, there are plenty of other activities on tap, including musical demonstrations, lectures, and performances and master classes by a few of the contest judges and some special guest stars throughout the week.

The festival portion of this now quadrennial event was kicked off in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall this Saturday past as the Irish pianist John O’Conor, an internationally renowned virtuoso and a judge in the current competition, performed in recital. The intimate venue of the Gildenhorn — remarkably like a large, modernist living room with crisp acoustics — proved a perfect performance space for this specialist in the late classical and early Romantic eras.

Mr. O’Conor chose an unusual selection of short, rarely heard works by mostly major composers, focusing attention particularly, though not exclusively, on the nocturne, or Romantic “night song.” This form, conveniently enough, was actually invented by Mr. O’Conor’s fellow countryman, Irish pianist-composer John Field, and not by Frederick Chopin as many still believe.

Mr. O’Conor led off with exquisitely delicate and understated performances of three of Field’s Nocturnes, No. 5 in B-flat major, No. 6 in F major, and No. 18 in E major. Of these, the naively charming No. 5 is perhaps the best known. Its simple, lovely melody, sung by the right hand to a rippling accompaniment in the left, builds to a gently passionate climax before subsiding. It is in many ways recognizable as the prototype for a style that Chopin would eventually take much further, but it is lovely in its own right. Mr. O’Conor’s tastefully restrained interpretation of all three nocturnes offered a welcome glimpse into a historically relevant but neglected repertoire — a dazzling Irish jewel box of tiny keyboard gems.

Somewhat less successful was Mr. O’Conor’s realization of Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand Alone, Op. 9. The eccentric Scriabin, a formidable pianist himself, penned this short pair of works in the early 1890s, largely to give himself something to do while recuperating from an injury to his right hand resulting from a too-strenuous practice schedule. The work is written for both clefs like a conventional piano piece but is played only by the left hand, which increases its difficulty by an order of magnitude. The left hand, in effect, accompanies itself by leaping up to sing in the tenor and treble registers, forcing the pianist to create the illusion of a two-handed composition. Mr. O’Conor gave an expressive performance of this rarely heard work, although he got lost once or twice in the bass figures.

Robert Schumann once described the movements of Chopin’s “Funeral March” sonata as “four of Chopin’s maddest children.” The same odd compliment might be justifiably aimed at Beethoven’s “Six Bagatelles,” Op. 126. Written around the time of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s Op. 126 is a grab bag of party pieces loaded with surprises, and Mr. O’Conor negotiated their wicked twists and turns with aplomb.

Particularly effective was his steely attack in the Allegro in G minor, but equally rewarding was the playful approach he brought to the headlong Presto in B minor. His final selection, the Presto-Andante amabile e con moto in E-flat major began with a pianistic cannon blast but then concluded quite amiably in an understated counterpoint to the bagatelle’s opening boisterousness. In many ways, these extraordinary and occasionally rude trifles from the great master’s pen were the highlight of the evening.

Mr. O’Conor followed the Beethoven with a modern miniature, Samuel Barber’s “Nocturne — Hommage a John Field,” Op. 33. The pianist definitively captured the neo-Romantic American composer’s ironic postmodern mood, sketching out on the Steinway concert grand a piece that nods to both Chopin and Field while insinuating unsettling harmonic dissonances into what remains of the work’s melodic line.

Mr. O’Conor chose to close this evening of fascinating esoterica with Schubert’s better-known Impromptus, D. 899. Although Mr. O’Conor executed the first, the Allegro molto moderato in C-minor with dash and brilliance, his approach to the second, the famous Allegro in E-flat major, was a revelation. Here is a piece of surpassing popularity that is likely to be granted a bathetic and imprecise performance under more cynical hands. However, Mr. O’Conor infused it with the rare perfume of a fresh reading, expressing a restrained passion and wonder that evoked the mists of a nearly forgotten Romantic past. Ditto his interpretations of the languid Andante in G-flat major and the more vigorous Allegretto in A-flat major Impromptus that followed. Magnificent.

Mr. O’Conor pleased his appreciative audience by performing two encores. The first was an elegant rendering of Chopin’s popular Nocturne in E-flat Major. After all, as the pianist informed the audience, “it would be wrong” not to play one of Chopin’s Nocturnes during an evening that was largely devoted to this form as well as to the cantabile style of playing that the opera-loving Polish genius made famous. Mr. O’Conor concluded his recital with another encore, an amusing trifle known as “The Bread and Butter Waltz.” Usually attributed to Mozart, its entire melody is played with one finger.

All in all, Mr. O’Conor’s recital was a capital evening for lovers of the piano, and it will be a hard act to follow, even as the main event builds toward its climax later this week.


WHAT: The William Kapell International Competition and Festival

WHEN: Through Friday

WHERE: The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland

TICKETS: For tickets, package prices or other information, call 301/405-ARTS, or go to the Smith Center Web site at www. claricesmith center.umd.edu.

EVENTS: All events are ticketed, although a few are free. Inquire at the box office.

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