Alan Mandel, Dashing Off His Notes

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Alan Mandel, pianist, composer and teacher, celebrated his 70th birthday in style at the Phillips Collection on Sunday by presiding over 15 world premieres, and a U.S. premiere, of his own compositions.

Most of these were songs. Soprano Leslie Terrell Hamilton and tenor Israel Lozano shared the solo assignments with Mandel accompanying, but a couple were for piano alone. In these, Mandel showed some of the fire that was his trademark years ago when he used to regale audiences all over the world with the wonders of Scott Joplin and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

As a composer of songs, Mandel has respect for the poetry of the texts and for the natural idiom of the human voice. His harmonic language is laced with ninths and elevenths, and his tonalities are in constant motion. But his lines make lyrical sense, and both Terrell and Lozano handled them with apparent comfort.

Mandel's playing in those songs, however, seems to be the stuff of a pianist who is a fluent improviser, someone who doodles around easily on the keyboard. It tended to add neither depth nor dimension and was, indeed, merely accompaniment rather than collaboration in the messages of the songs.

The two piano pieces on the program were "Translucent Visions," variations on a Chinese folk melody, and a set of six "Picasso Images," free-form pieces that sought to create an atmosphere. Mandel seemed to revel in his complicated sonorities and dense textures, but a clearer sense of direction in these pieces would have been welcome.

Hamilton, who started out beautifully, struggled a bit in a set of pieces on French texts and seemed increasingly detached from the music. Lozano took on the poetry of his texts (all of them in his native Spanish) with gusto and added compelling drama to everything he sang.

-- Joan Reinthaler

© 2006 The Washington Post Company