By Erica Miner
Internationally acclaimed, award-winning pianist Jessie Chang is known for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive style. San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church (http://www.fpcsd.org), which gives an extensive concert series often including members of the San Diego Symphony, hosted Chang and four of her SD Symphony friends (violinists Jisun Yang and Julia Pautz, violist Chi-Yuan Chen and cellist Yao Zhao) in an ambitious program featuring Darius Milhaud’s intriguing La création du monde, op. 81a, and Antonin Dvořák’s beloved Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, op. 81.
In the early 1920s, as African and Afro-American fashion swept the Paris of Josephine Baker and Picasso, Milhaud journeyed to New York, where he frequented Harlem’s nightclubs and bars and mingled with jazz musicians. Captivated by the city’s “authentic” jazz culture, he returned to Paris with a great love for jazz, blues, swing, and the exotic, pulsating rhythms of Africa, and began to write in the jazz idiom. “The music was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before, and was a revelation to me,” the composer said. “Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms.” At Création’s premiere in 1923, critics declared the music “frivolous” - more appropriate for a dance hall than a concert hall. The same detractors changed their tune a decade later, when a highly popularized jazz style became the subject of their philosophical discussions.
Originally commissioned in 1922 by Ballets Suédois, a company contemporary to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the six-movement work generally is performed in concert halls rather than as a ballet. In their rendition of Milhaud’s own arrangement for piano quintet, Chang and her friends impressed, not only with their virtuosity but also with their intuitive understanding of Milhaud’s bluesy harmonies, melodies, and irresistible foot-stomping rhythms. The players distinctly emphasized the “blue notes” of Gershwin and Bernstein and the rhythmic influences of Milhaud’s compatriots Ravel and Poulenc, captivating the audience with their energy and dynamism.
The ensemble’s virtuosic skills shone to great effect in the Dvořák quintet, which holds its own well-defined place among the pantheon of other monumental masterpieces of this genre; i.e. those of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. Dvořák’s work is unique in that he melds his own individual expressive style with the Czech folk song and dance melodies of his native land.
Each movement offered opportunities for the individual instrumentalists to excel. The players’ enthusiasm stood out in their separate solos and also produced an impressive ensemble. Chang’s pianistic brilliance and appealing musical warmth were brought to prominence throughout the technically and interpretively challenging work, as she negotiated the fiendishly difficult piano part with seeming ease, especially in the spirited folk dance-based Furiant third movement, which has been known to defeat the most intrepid pianists.
Yang’s aggressive leadership and penetrating tone were impressive. She and Pautz were perfectly matched, each standing out in their individual solo turns and blending seamlessly, as if one instrument, while playing together. So, too were Chen and Zhao, providing a solid, perfectly synched lower-range foundation to the upper voices. Dvořák, who played viola in his early musical life, clearly loved the instrument, and Chen rose to the occasion with his poignant, sensitive rendering of the extended viola solo in the Eastern European folk ballad-based Dumky second movement. From the opening solo in the first movement and throughout his solo turns, Zhao performed magisterially, at times evoking Dvořák’s cello concerto, the mainstay of the instrument’s solo repertoire.
Chang, along with Yang, Pautz, Chen and Zhao, will perform again at San Diego Central Library on Nov. 9.
Photos used by permission of Jessie Chang
Erica Miner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org