It's hard to imagine Washington National Cathedral as an intimate setting for anything, and even harder to imagine that space as an acoustically sympathetic venue for piano music. But for Tuesday's program of pieces written by Anthony Stark, it was all of that.
Stark added to the feeling that this was an intimate family affair with gracious and relaxed introductions to each of the four major pieces on the program and to the pianists: Brian Ganz, Edward Newman and Ernest Ragogini (Stark was the fourth pianist).
Stark is an interesting guy, a pianist/composer/arts manager who most enjoys composing collaboratively with performers. He refers, for instance, to his Second Sonata ("French Variations" on music of Cesar Franck), chosen by Newman, as a piece "we" created.
The pieces on this program were firmly grounded in the romantic tradition, essentially tonal and structurally conservative. But over this foundation was a liberal dose of Stark's quirky sense of humor, his unabashed willingness to quote or borrow large dollops of material from other composers, a splendid way with textures, and an intriguing blending of playfulness and serious purpose.
Ganz, who has a way of involving himself in musical activities of unusual interest, took on the Sonata for Piano Solo (1978). Ganz treated the big, daunting score as a close friend, reacting to its challenges with intense concentration, to its lyricism with joy and to its boisterousness with glee.
Newman's reading of the Second Sonata (1984) did indeed reflect the riches of two minds at work. Newman, who is a French music specialist, knows how to retain the spaciousness of French timbre in the midst of a lot of complicated musical activity and still make it sound easy.
In the 1996 Third Sonata "Portrait," Ragogini paid close attention to detail and restrained handling of sonorities, keeping the music coherent and accessible.
Stark opened the program with the premiere of "Suite Number Too," a set of five waltzes written over the course of 20 years for friends. The waltzes moved (not chronologically) from the elegantly simple (written for a 7-year-old) to the fiendishly intricate.