Pianist Joel Fan performs at the National Gallery of Art

June 6, 2011

It was a relief to attend a summertime concert that did not invite the listener to turn off his mind and just relax. Pianist Joel Fan, known for his work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and his adventurous programming, returned to the National Gallery of Art for a solo recital Sunday evening.

Fan claimed that the choice of music revolved around two themes, “spirituality” from different world cultures and the “breakdown of tonality.” Both applied to the hair-raising rendition of Scriabin’s ferocious fifth sonata, a jumble of melodic themes and near-eclipsing cascades of notes that evoked the summoning of creative force like a sorcerous incantation. In Schoenberg’s “Three Piano Pieces,” op. 11, Fan proceeded from the same sort of post-Romantic chromatic voluptuousness, making the score’s thickets of dissonance as sensual as possible.

Other composers challenged tonality by incorporating styles of popular music, such as the Brazilian dance idioms echoed in short, pleasing pieces by Ernesto Nazareth and Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Middle Eastern music evoked by Dia Succari, a la Windham Hill, in the somewhat over-long and repetitive “La nuit du destin.” African American composer Margaret Bonds used extended jazz harmonies in her spiritual-inspired “Troubled Water,” the only piece whose right-hand flourishes gave Fan any technical trouble.

Lack of virtuosity was certainly not the problem in Beethoven’s op. 110 sonata, especially in the tender slow movement and its juxtaposition with the bubbling, heroic fugue. Unfortunately, the recital ended with what ranks as one of the most brutal, unnuanced and ugly performances of Chopin’s second sonata ever to reach these ears. Perhaps one could admire the single-minded intensity of literal heavy-handedness, if one agreed with the apparent goal, to prove that Chopin was a vulgarian of the lowest order. A smoky encore, Astor Piazzolla’s prelude “Flora’s Game,” provided a much-needed auricular lavage.

— Charles T. Downey

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