Dallas — In November 2012, Olga Kern, one of the best pianists of this generation, played a knockout recital at the Winspear Opera House. On rereading my review, the acoustics in the opera house received some significant praise and worked quite nicely for a piano recital. This was something to ponder on Tuesday evening when the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili opened the new Recital Series in the Winspear and under the auspices of the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
All of the intermission buzz was about the strange acoustics. Some said the piano was lacking in highs while other said it lacked lows. Few agreed on anything other than that the acoustics were not good. Why this would be true is open to speculation, since it has been too long ago to remember how the piano was situated when Kern played.
Perhaps putting the piano in front of the curtain was not the best idea. That curtain might have acted as a large sound absorber. Perhaps an open curtain with some kind of acoustic shell behind the piano would correct the situation. Whatever the solution may be going forward, the arrangement for this recital is certainly not acceptable.
Unfortunately, the acoustical problem was not the only trouble with Buniatishvili’s recital. Her program was oddly assembled and her performance, while technically brilliant, was marred by questionable musical decisions and what appeared to be a detachment from the proceedings.
Buniatishvili programmed four huge virtuoso showpieces, all of which are standards in piano competitions around the world. She opened with Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Ravel’s La valse and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. All are totted out frequently at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and given gimcrack performances by the young and aspiring. You would expect that an established artist like Buniatishvili would eschew that kind of flash and plumb the depths instead. You would be wrong.
Her performance of all four pieces was remarkably the same. Tempi were erratic. Fast sections were accelerated to show-off speeds, allowing for some wrong notes here and there, and slow sections were stretched to the point of losing continuity. The loud parts were banged and soft sections kept at such a low level for so long a time that the music became flat, without any nuance. These peccadillos were so pervasive that all four pieces, by four very different composers, began to sound alike: Liszt, Stravinsky, Chopin and Ravel boiled down to notes and dynamics.
Upon reflection, a reasonable explanation for this lackluster performance might be that she hated the piano or couldn’t hear it in the Winspear. Another possibility is that she wasn’t herself, perhaps distracted or ill, on Tuesday evening. There were some indications that this might have been the case. She seemed to be in a hurry to get it over with, dutifully playing the notes in the manner of a run-through instead of a performance.
Two examples: On both halves, she started the second selection before the applause for the first one had stopped. At the end, she left the stage after a tight bow or two and never returned. The ecstatic ovation from the audience was obviously not going to elicit an encore. The house lights came up abruptly to stop the applause. It felt like closing time at a neighborhood pub.
We have all had days where everything was an insurmountable effort and all we can do is to put our head down and plow through it as best we can. When this happens to performers, some have amazing reserves that can come into play, but even that extra oomph is limited. Surely, the next time we hear Buniatishvili play, the incendiary artist will return.
Before the performance ATTPAC president and CEO Doug Curtis gave an overly long welcome and then introduced WRR announcer Barry Samsula, who made additional comments. His biographical comments about Buniatishvili were unnecessary and over-the-top and may have been off-putting.
Hopefully, this 10 minute pre-concert emcee act occurred because this was the inaugural concert in the series, and will not become a regular feature.