Washington Performing Arts, rechristened and rebranded, opened its new season Saturday afternoon in impressive fashion with the promising D.C. debut of Taiwanese American pianist Steven Lin at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
Lin, 25, is a muscular poet of the keyboard. He coaxes a wide range of expression out of his instrument with power and precision in almost equal measure. His playing offers sparkling virtuosity; unaffected, highly musical phrasing; and thoughtful interpretations blessedly free of mannerism. Only his aggressive attack lacks the final degrees of refinement.
The extraverted nature of Beethoven’s Op. 31, No. 3 Sonata offered a near-ideal vehicle for Lin. Playfully shaping lines and articulating voices, Lin brought out the sonata’s sunny and gently humorous character. His rhythmically alert, carefully shaded playing captured the varied moods, from tender lyricism and impish charm to boisterous cheer and galloping joy.
Schumann’s schizophrenic “Concerto Without Orchestra” drew more rhapsodic treatment from Lin. The tempestuous power and moody romanticism of Lin’s playing was mostly compelling but at times verged on brusqueness and overkill.
After intermission came the afternoon’s highlight: a new work by the talented young American composer David Hertzberg. “Notturno Incantato” is a 15-minute piece commissioned for Lin and premiered this year in New York. It is a darkly atmospheric work built on lithe undulations of sound punctuated by sharp moments of crisis. The piece’s mysterious tension was beautifully sustained in a supple and persuasive performance by Lin.
Lizst’s “Don Juan Fantasy,” which concluded the program, is a fearsome technical challenge for any pianist not named Josef Hofmann or Simon Barere. Lin betrayed some moments of strain but nonetheless pushed himself to his limits in an exhilarating yet cohesively shaped performance. More memorable, though, than the thunderous octaves or flashy passagework was Lin’s mischievously louche treatment of Mozart’s duet for Don Giovanni and Zerlina, “Là ci darem la mano.” A not-so-innocent hand was being offered, indeed.
Chin is a freelance writer.