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Concert Review: Pianist Junghwa Lee at the Ashburnham Community Church, 10/2/11, with the Frederick Piano Collection

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On October 2, 2011, the Frederick Historical Piano Collection hosted a concert at the Ashburnham Community Church. Concert pianist Junghwa Lee, who is currently an active soloist and associate professor of piano at the Southern Illinois University, beautifully performed from memory a program of Fauré, Ravel, and Liszt. Native Korean Lee, has upcoming concerts in Missouri, Illinois, London, Paris, and Amersterdam, and has been described by various sources as a pianist of “acute intelligence,” with “flawless technique” and “masterful artistic control.” Lee is also an old friend – she and I actually went to school together at Eastman School of Music. This was her first appearance in the concert series, and it was a superb one as Lee skillfully blended historical authenticity on the centuries old piano she performed on along with dynamic interpretations.

The Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection, which supports this concert series, is a gem for classical music aficionados and the general public alike. Maintained by Patricia and Edmund Michael Frederick, this Center is a wealth of resources, mainly concentrated in their wonderful collection of over twenty early grand pianos. A main feature is their Historical Piano Concerts, a concert series featuring internationally renowned pianists performing works on selected pianos of the collection. The pianos are determined by program choice: if the pianist chooses to focus on Chopin, then the piano of choice is the 1840 Erard. If the pianist chooses to focus on piano literature by Mendelssohn, then the Tröndlin (c. 1839) might be a good choice. Performers like Junghwa Lee painstakingly research and practice, adjusting their own techniques to accommodate the often more delicate touches of these pianos. One cannot simply pound away on these pianos, sturdy as they are. Sometimes a more subtle technique is required.

On the website and in conversation with Patricia Frederick, an important issue was brought out. When thinking about these pianos in their particular historical stage of evolution and in context with the composer and the piano literature that was produced, one might ask, “what is the relation to sound and the particular instrument?” It’s an important question to think about, and it’s definitely not something performers may think about as often, especially with the more standardized grand pianos of today. Chopin, Ravel, and Liszt alike are performed on pianos like the Steinway, and we (performers and audience) don’t devote much thought to it.  But when performing these same works on older instruments, one must think about such things. These older instruments were not characterized by their uniformity of sound. Each composer wrote for a certain piano, and for a certain sound. Even more importantly, when performing on the piano the music was originally “meant for,” certain features of touch or pedaling or articulation are revealed. This is why the Fredericks place so much importance on playing Liszt on an 1877 Erard or Mendelssohn on a Tröndlin, rather than Mozart on the 1877 Erard or a Brahms on an 1845 Pleyel. The result is definitely a more historically authentic performance.

Lee’s choice of piano was the 1877 Erard extra-grande modele de concert, a favorite of composers such as Ravel and Fauré who performed, composed, and practiced mostly on such pianos. Liszt also owned several, or variants, during his time. As stated on the Collection’s website, this particular Erard, made in Paris, has a fantastic dynamic range, with 90 keys extending to a low G in the bass. This great dynamic range was shown off to great advantage in the pieces Lee chose. The piano is also characterized by its superb clarity and its slow decay – features unforgiving of mistakes. Lee’s performance was flawless.

Lee opened the concert with two Nocturnes by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The first one, No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 1, a delicate and contemplative lovely little gem of a piece. Lee played both sensitively. The second one, No. 6 in D-flat, Op. 63, composed roughly 20 years after the first, is equally lovely in its subtlety, but contains many more exciting dynamic changes and delicately articulated arpeggiations. The differences between the Erard and the Steinway were clearly noticeable in parts: the Erard brought out these dynamic contrasts and created some unexpectedly beautiful sounds with its wonderful clarity. Following this piece was the Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), composed by Ravel in tribute to friends who died in World War I. Each movement is dedicated to a particular friend, and the structure on the whole is imitative of a Baroque dance suite. Ravel drew from 18th century models in the composition of the piece, and it is as much homage to composers such as François Couperin or Bach as much as it is a moving tribute to his friends.

To close, Lee performed the Sonata in B (1853) by Liszt, a massive single-movement masterpiece that demands great technical skill and endurance from the performer, not to mention provides a challenge in memorizing the entire work! Lee was superbly up to the challenge, performing the piece and its wonderful dynamic contrasts and expressive contours with finesse and power. Even from the outset, the piece, with its wildly virtuosic moments dropping into gentler and more melodic sections, is in sharp contrast with the Fauré and the Ravel, which seem more delicate in comparison. Themes are skillfully interlocked and arranged to form this one cohesive whole, or the entire exposition, development, and recapitulation over around 35 minutes of unbroken music. One faces the successful performance of this piece with something like awe, and fittingly so. The conclusion of the piece earned an instantaneous standing ovation for Lee.

All in all, this was yet another successful Historical Piano Concert, and I look forward to visiting again and attending more concerts.

For more information about the Historical Piano Concerts, please visit this link.

For more information about these pianos, and how to support the Piano Collection, visit here. The Study Center is open for free tours year round.

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