It’s All About Piano! Day #1 @ Institut français

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Author: Weeping Tudor

It’s All About Piano! Festival (Day #1) / Institut français, London / Friday 18th March 2016

The time has come to rejoice and celebrate the 150th birthday of renowned French composer Erik Satie.

We may have to wait till May, but already things are gearing up to an exciting year of eccentric music making.

The It’s All About Piano Festival, based in the Institut Francais, is now in its fourth year and for its infancy, is going swimmingly. All types of pianos are welcome and a mainly French ensemble of pianists feature heavily. The Institut itself is a beyond beautiful hidden gem in South Kensington, that should be visited if you’re ever in the capitol. Mostly a library and cinema, the success story of the music festival is commendable and I myself, a cultural marathon goer, needs little persuasion to attend.

Whipping things into shape was a screening of Behind the Veil (Le temps d rob). This documentary by Raphaelle Aellig Regnier is a telling portrait of the brilliant young pianist Alexandre Tharaud. It’s easy to say he comes across as an exhausted soul, with many lingering shots of him lying on a coach, as if it were a therapy session. He has much insight, though being a renowned musician, his little quirks may demonstrate OCD. In one shot he is taping up his air conditioning vent in his hotel room (a great idea really), in another he insists the piano be moved just one centimetre in order for him to play it. The total musicianship is matched with a worry for the viewer that he may not be cut out for the job after all. A very telling documentary.

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For the evening’s concert, a sold out night with Joanna MacGregor was on the table. Her choice of composers was eye bulging, with Satie and Ligeti to Wagner and Liszt (I guess “you can’t take the sauerkraut out of music” then as Satie once said). Her no-nonsense approach to Satie’s Gnossiennes (1and 5) is commendable, never diminishing the mystic and serene elements this most famous of piano scores presents. Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata are cheeky and creepy, but another great headline for the concert. An unprogrammed playing of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was welcome, helping us formulate a Romantic mood, the score rich in sweeping, throbbing melodies and that unforgettable famous climax.

Two works by Liszt felt less important on the night. It’s easy to see the shock his work would have made in his time, but now in this programme it felt like filler and not like they belonged. Some of Piazzolla’sTangos ended the concert, filled with colour, vibrancy and the brilliant Libertango, as Joanna thrashed the high and low keys in a frenzied phrase of Latin passion and crazed playing. An encore (I’m assuming it was Piazzolla’s once more) was our scintillating end to this first concert of many over the weekend.

A late night concert should have a lot of appeal since staying up late at the concert hall can be a special feeling. This was no exception for Bruce Brubaker and his tributes to John Cage (a huge advocate of Satie) and Philip Glass (or Philippe as he was billed in the programme). These two American rebels of avant-garde music making completely changed the way we listen to and think about music. Cage would develop his Music of Chance (one of his many experiments and games), leaving it up to fate as to how his music would be arranged. He surrendered the control that an artist has in their work and let the piece be simply of itself.

Cage’s Dream is prior to this journey and is a little work of great meditative contemplation and appreciation. His Child of Tree was an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) joy of rustling and scrapping of different objects including a cactus, twigs and other bric-a-brac (then leading into Brubaker speaking what sounded like mock German). Cage regarded all sound as music and this is no different. It’s stimulating of course and makes for a unique listening experience unlike any other. The ‘Bruce knocking over the cactus just after it was over’ would have made old Cage laugh, no doubt. The doubling up of two of his others pieces, One and Fontana Mix (the later electronically imagined by Brubaker) was also intriguing, unusual stimuli from a composer we will never forget.

Glass’ music is instantly recognised, though he wouldn’t want to identify as a minimalist. It’s accessible and famous for its repeated patterns, moments of sheer clarity and a vibrant sense of belonging. His Mad Rush is a classic, his Opening iconic and the William Burrows inspired Wichita Vortex Sutra is an addition worth hearing at the end of the night. Brubaker’s own video work is fitting and keeps to the repeated maturity of Glass’ music. An impeccable concert.

Ratings:

Behind the Veil: 4 stars
Joanna MacGregor around Satie: 4 stars
Bruce Brubaker sees through Glass and Cage: 5 stars

Weeping Tudor Productions present Satiefest, a Cardiff bases festival starting in May with the birthday celebrations, Medusa’s Trap and a lecture from Caroline Potter on her new book about Satie. Dates and locations TBC.

Help bring Erik Satie’s Uspud to the Edinburgh Fringe this August by supporting Weeping Tudor Productions Kickstarter campaign.

Photo Credit: Mariona Vilaros

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