David Greilsammer: Lots of adventurousness, and some missteps, in Terrace Theater recital


David Greilsammer used a Steinway and a “prepared” piano for sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and John Cage. (Julien Mignot)
January 12

David Greilsammer’s Washington debut was no ordinary concert. But Greilsammer is no ordinary pianist. Reflecting a ­hyper-inquisitive mind and a developed taste for the novel, his solo recital Saturday afternoon offered adventure and eccentricity in equal measure.

The concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, bore the avant-gardish title “Scarlatti: Cage: Sonatas.”

Greilsammer, 36, has made a calling card of hour-long, intermission-less recitals that make bold conceptual leaps between the old and the new. The old, in this case, were eight sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti from the 18th century, which alternated with seven sonatas by the 20th-century American experimentalist John Cage.

Scarlatti and Cage are not the strangest of bedfellows. Many observers have noted the kinship between the composers’ sonatas: their shared binary form, striking originality and creation of miniature soundscapes. But it is one thing to note the connection and another to design an entire program around it. And it is quite another thing to actually perform the pieces. For it was in the execution, rather than conception, that Greilsammer’s innovative concert occasionally disappointed.

Greilsammer’s feat of conceptual derring-do required not one but two pianos: an ordinary Steinway for the Scarlatti and a “prepared” piano for the Cage. The latter contraption is a piano transformed into a homemade percussion orchestra by the insertion of objects — screws, bolts, nuts, rubber and plastic — onto or between the strings. These “prepared” notes clink, buzz, knock, rattle, thock, thud or ping.

While no two prepared pianos sound quite alike, they tend to fall into two categories: highly resonant preparations with a strong sense of pitch, and more muted ones with a quickly decaying sound. The former allows greater attention to melodic line, the latter to Cage’s pointed rhythms and noise effects.

Greilsammer’s prepared piano was of the less resonant variety, and his interpretations foregrounded percussive effect. This served him best in an up-tempo piece like Cage’s Sonata No. 5, which emerged like a joyous, free-flowing jam session with an Indonesian gamelan orchestra. Yet the piano’s quick decay left Greilsammer unable to sustain the tranquil, otherworldly atmospherics of Sonatas No. 14 and 16. Too often, the playing evoked less a voyage to “a different planet,” as Greilsammer wrote in the program, than a trip to the hardware store.

This preoccupation with effect appeared to carry over into eccentric readings of many of the Scarlatti sonatas. The recital opened promisingly with a heart-stoppingly beautiful account of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, K. 213, exquisite in its lyricism and cantabile line. Yet as Greilsammer waded deeper into the Cage, Scarlatti received progressively rougher and more exaggerated treatment, with percussive attacks, extreme tempos, stretched rubatos and stuttering ornamentation. To his credit, Greilsammer rarely lost sight of the pieces’ architecture or melodic line, yet his mind often appeared to race ahead of his fingers, sacrificing control and finesse in the exploration of a musical idea.

Yet in an era of bland conservatory pianists, Greilsammer’s bracing sense of adventure is to be applauded. For his playing — always searching and never boring — was anything but ordinary.

Chin is a freelance writer.

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