Pianist Michael Arnowitt delivers an on-point performance at National Gallery

June 17, 2013

The National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition is “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” and, in its honor, pianist Michael Arnowitt has put together a beautifully thought-out program — a bits-and-pieces retrospective of what was going on musically about 1913, when the past, present and future vied for position. He played it at the gallery Sunday with an exquisite sense of touch, color and musical imagination.

To watch Arnowitt as he plays, sitting quietly at the keyboard, you might expect soulless music-making, but you could not be more wrong. He doesn’t go for cheap effects. He listens intently. His dynamics are calculated for their particular context, his music moves with tantalizing inevitability, and he produces the most rewardingly supple lines.

Acoustically, the gallery’s West Garden Court might not be the easiest venue for pianists, but Arnowitt found ways to make even the lush textures of the opening movement of the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor sound clean and focused without sacrificing urgency or passion. Three of Debussy’s Book 2 Preludes trickled off the keys with shadings of dynamics that were almost imperceptible but perfectly satisfying. And both the humor of Satie’s in-your-face “Embryons Desseches,” or “Dessicated Embryos” (performed while pianist Jeffrey Chappell narrated musings on the piece), and the dark foreboding of Leo Ornstein’s “Suicide in an Airplane” emerged full of character.

The evening’s highlight was a glowingly gentle, sonorous reading of the Alcott movement from Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, which began reflectively and built almost imperceptibly to a intricate sketch of a complex New England personality.

The concert’s smashing finale was a technically brilliant and musically convincing performance of Arnowitt’s arrangement of the first half of “The Rite of Spring.” More orchestral than pianistic, it conjured up, almost eerily, sounds of woodwinds, percussion and all the rest. Stravinsky arranged this for two pianos, and that arrangement is a technical stretch. Pulling it off solo was an impressive tour de force.

The applause was loud and long but, wisely, Arnowitt did not play an encore. What could follow the Stravinsky?

Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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