A world premiere took place Sunday night in the National Gallery of Art. It was not the year's most momentous new composition, perhaps--in some ways it wasn't new at all--but it was fascinating music that thoroughly exercised pianist James Dick's imagination and his impressive technical skills. I would like to hear it again, perhaps in a recording with extended program notes that would allow repeated exploration of its narrative and philosophical depths.
Titled "The Birth of Shiva Fantasy," the 10-minute solo piano work is adapted and condensed by composer Dan Welcher from a piano concerto about three times as long titled "Shiva's Drum" that he composed for Dick five years ago. You might call it a portable edition of the larger work, something the pianist can take with him for occasions (undoubtedly numerous) when he wants to give his audience a musical account of the Indian deity Shiva and does not happen to have on hand an orchestra thoroughly rehearsed in Welcher's challenging contemporary concerto. In exchange for this convenience, he has to convey the orchestra's textures and commentaries on his piano, as well as playing the highly virtuosic solo part.
In Hindu mythology, Shiva is both a creator and a destroyer; in the interest of simplicity, the solo adaptation presents him only as creator. It follows a coherent, fairly simple but varied and colorful program, from the opening thunder and lightning at the birth of the god and the instant creation of the universe, through his final triumph over chaos, all lucidly discussed by the composer in a program note that brings out its logic and coherence in ways beyond the communicative power of music alone. It should be distributed at each performance of the piece, and Dick should consider prefacing the work with a brief discussion at the keyboard telling the story and playing illustrative examples.
Dick played the music as though it belonged to him--as, in fact, it does. He has a less exclusive claim to the Beethoven works that opened the program--the youthful, impulsive "Appassionata" and the six Bagatelles of Op. 126, deeper music and more serious than the tuneful whimsies Beethoven published earlier under the same title. His interpretation emphasized the music's profundities without neglecting its surface glitter. His "Appassionata" was intense, brilliant and not entirely free of wrong notes, which did not reduce its impact.
The same balance of thoughtfulness and technical bravura was heard in his performance of Chopin's Polonaise No. 5 in F-sharp Minor, which concluded the program.