Watching Bradford Gowen play Samuel Adler's Canto VIII on Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters in one of their fastest games. If "watching" a pianist is not the most usual activity at most recitals, it certainly is during the Adler.
In this exciting and intensely musical work the pianist is all over the piano: playing the keyboard as usual, suddenly up and plucking the strings, or making a fast move to the left in order to muffle the strings with the left hand while playing on the keys with the right. It is a brilliant concept and, under Gowen's hands, came off with a stunning effect.
This was only the finale of a concert that made it very clear that Washington-trained Gowen's winning the first prize in last year's Kennedy Center-Rockefeller Foundation Competition for Excellence in Performing American American Music was 100 percent on the mark. He opened with a powerful performance of the late Robert Evett's Chaconne, one of the Washington composer's finest shorter works.
In George Perle's Six Etudes, written in 1976, Gowen tossed off some staggering displays of the quietest music taken at phenonemal speeds.
The etudes are among the finest works for piano written in a generation. Gowen did them superbly.
In Aaron Copland's by now classic sonata, Gowen offered by turns lyrical and spiky playing of the kind ideally suited to the work, closing it with poetic sounds of great beauty. In tribute to one of his Washington teachers, Gowen played a sonatina by Wendell Keeney that was a complete joy in its mixture of jazzy wit and genuine charm.
The only non-American music of the day was the late A Major Sonata of Beethoven, Op. 101, in which a kind of assurance was frequently mixed with a certain nervous unease. Gowen is a pianist who should be asked back for an early second hearing.