Fort Worth — June 21 night marked the final performance of the PianoTexas Festival, one that surely stood as a point of pride for the festival directors and participants. The three spotlighted pianists on display were Yun-Chih Hsu from Taiwan, Krzysztof Ksiazek from Poland, and Samuel Deason from Canada. They were three of the six winners of the Young Artists Concerto Competition held June 7, the prize being the performance with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra that a very eager and supportive audience was there to witness.
Hsu began the evening in a subtle space, soothingly caressing the first chords of Beethoven’s fourth Piano Concerto. Poised and determined, she patiently awaited the orchestra’s first statement before diving into her own dynamic interpretation of what had just been heard from the orchestra. Her poise held the concerto in a lighter environment than what might be expected from a Beethoven concerto. She custom built her performance much like her stunning dress seemed custom made for the evening. She glided over scales and themes, but still maintained the distinct rhythmic clarity when it mattered. Long tremolos are rarely this well executed, but Hsu’s lightness of touch made them shimmer. Over and over again, through the Adagio’s unresolved chorale sections and the high energy of the rondo, Hsu’s choice to gently caress rather than attack kept the entire concerto buoyant and light, not necessarily the common choice for Beethoven’s works.
If Hsu’s Beethoven was shimmering and gentle, Ksiazek’s interpretation of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 was enthusiastic. His excitement was obvious as he entered the stage, and as the orchestra began the first theme, he turned his back on the audience, choosing to watch and dance his head and shoulders along with the performers behind him, as if to say “I’m here to enjoy this right along with all of you.” This enthusiastic, almost altruistic energy pervaded the performance. Ksiazek’s playing is full of pride and confidence, as well he should be, this being only one of the many competitions he has won for his interpretations of the Chopin’s music.
His particular interpretation chooses to highlight Chopin’s orchestration itself, very often criticized as dry and uninteresting. Ksiazek delights in orchestration he has turned into his own playground, seemingly unafraid to be “overpowered” by the orchestra when moments get quiet. He plays as a soloist who is also part of the orchestra rather than a star in front of it; perhaps very much the way Chopin, a rather shy man himself, would have originally intended it. There is a pining and longing in the way Ksiasek’s pulls sounds out of the piano. And his very free sense of rubato during the second and third movements kept enough suspense in the air that several members bit their nails and covered their hands over the mouths seeming to wonder if he would make the downbeat of the next phrase. (Have no fear. He met every downbeat exactly when he should.) This sense of play and wonder made this a very unique Chopinesque experience.
When a pianist walks on a stage with unbuttoned tux shirt in a loose fitting jacket, a relaxed performance might be expected. But Samuel Deason was tackling the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2, a concerto the 26-year-old has performed for several years now. And the reason for his relaxed appearance became all too obvious as soon as he began playing the first movement. The body stays distant from the keyboard, and the arms move little despite the wide leaps and difficult dissonant rhythmic passages he is undertaking.
No ounce of energy is wasted, and the powerful weighted sound easily pours out of Deason’s stature. Through Prokofiev’s first cadenza “tantrum,” through the full blown etude-like nature of the second movement, the stature never changes. Only at the first rolled chords of the third bombastic movement does Deason shift his weight, pulling every sound he can muster from those chords and throwing them back into the orchestra and audience around him. His playing is leading us all into battle with closed fists lifting the sound before the orchestra delves into a no-holds bar orgy of sound. And when all should be done, there’s the finale where every dissonance is given its due respect in a work surprisingly full of lighthearted hummable themes that are ravaged by the chaotic atmosphere around it. If Ksiazek keeps you on the edge of your seat, you now just simply want to give into a powerful dark side, and willingly do so because of Deason’s playing.
All three soloists all gave outstanding performances, but a great round of praise must also be given to the Fort Worth Symphony under the direction of Lio Kuokman, the guest conductor from the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, whose feet seemed to conduct as much as his hands. Under Lio’s energetic and exuberant conducting, the orchestra’s sensitivity to the pianists’ interpretations of these great works cannot be lauded enough. As the executive director of Piano Texas Tamás Ungár commented on during the intermission, this was indeed a “beautiful night of music” as well as a powerful one that stirred the audience’s excitement.
« To read about the other three student performances, go here.