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Review | In the music of two vastly different pianists, echoes of Ned Rorem

Review | In the music of two vastly different pianists, echoes of Ned Rorem


On Saturday, my plan was to hit two piano recitals: Víkingur Ólafsson performing a program framed by his 2021 album, “Mozart & Contemporaries,” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and avant-garde icon Margaret Leng Tan performing a memorial tribute to composer George Crumb at the Library of Congress.

I’d intended to go solo, but I ended up having company. All day long, Ned Rorem and his songs were hanging around in my head.

Rorem, the prolific Pulitzer-winning American composer, pianist and diarist, died last week at his Manhattan apartment at the age of 99, and his death hit me like a piano shoved from a 14th-story window.

Over the course of his eight-decade career, Rorem produced operas, concertos, choral works and symphonies, but he was best known for his more than 500 “art songs” — intricately composed musical settings of poems from Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson and others. I often think of Rorem dwelling in the same aesthetic neighborhood as poet Frank O’Hara, from whose poems he frequently drew inspiration.

But, words aside, my favorite room of Rorem’s musical house was the one where he kept his piano. Rorem’s short solo piano sketches — many collected in his “Piano Album I” (1978-2001) — are among the most expressive piano works of the last century, despite most of them clocking in at barely two minutes.

At the piano, Rorem composed intimate handwritten notes to friends (“For a Perfect Friend,” “Ah, Jim”), dedicatory doodles (“Forty Chords for Mark on April First”) and birthday gifts (“A Little Waltz for Jim at Fifty-Five”). A beautiful performance of the suite given in 2014 by pianist Carolyn Enger at the National Gallery can be found on YouTube.

Rorem’s gentle, post-Romantic gestures were always tempered by notes of existential angst — there was ever a pebble in Ned’s proverbial loafer. But he also had a wonderful way of writing and rewriting phrases, letting his lines walk the same blocks and allowing different times of day to illuminate new details along their familiar paths. They feel like little errands, self-justifying excuses to leave the house of words.

But more than anything, they feel like Ned. They virtually brim with Nedness. When I listen to Rorem, I’m reminded of the piano’s potential as an amplifier of the internal — a voice to articulate the unsayable.

Rorem didn’t often write about the old masters, preferring to point his pen at his peers. But before Rorem was 20, he’d learned the piano catalogues of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and others. He seemed pleased enough to leave them in the past.

“Mozart and Bach are of their time, and they are dated. All art dates from the moment it is created. It dates well or it dates ill, but date it does,” Rorem wrote in a 1996 essay.

Rorem also seemed intent to view Mozart less as a divine vessel and more as a man: “Mozart’s pain is no less acute than the hatcheck girl’s,” he once quipped. And in this, Rorem finds a kindred spirit in Víkingur Ólafsson.

Ólafsson is a gifted pianist, but his other primary instrument is context. His 202o album, “Debussy – Rameau,” was a revelatory pairing of the two French composers — the former born a century after the latter’s death — tracing an uncanny path between ostensibly distant sensibilities. On 2021’s “Mozart & Contemporaries,” Ólafsson grapples with his own anxieties vis a vis Mozart and his attendant mythology.

“When I was eight,” he remarked before the recital, “it was Mozart that made me realize I wasn’t terribly good at playing piano.”

Saturday’s program (a replica of the album’s sequence and selection) was focused on this “mature Mozart” of the 1780s, in which Ólafsson detects “seeds of Romanticism” and a more pronounced impulse toward “music for music’s sake.”

But the recital’s program also skillfully juxtaposed works from Mozart’s contemporaries, both close in proximity and spirit (like C.P.E. Bach and Haydn) and further afield (like Galuppi and Cimarosa).

Thus Mozart’s “Rondo in F Major” found a convivial next-door neighbor in the younger Bach’s “Rondo for Keyboard in D Minor.” Haydn’s “Sonata for Piano in B Minor” presented a brisk and sprightly prelude to Mozart’s similarly Bach-patting “Kleine Gigue in G.” And the sweet and somber first movement of Galuppi’s “Piano Sonata No. 34 in C Minor” offered a contemplative tonal crossing to Mozart’s “Piano Sonata No. 14.” The effect was a palpable freshening of material that one couldn’t imagine hearing anew — even the “Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major” (a.k.a. the “Sonata Facile”) that so tormented Ólafsson in his youth showed off brighter colors than I’ve come to expect.

Ólafsson followed his path through the program with exquisite focus and sensitivity — his own arrangement for piano of the Adagio from Mozart’s “String Quartet No. 3 in G Minor” was especially beautiful. He’s a stylish interpreter, fond of soft-topped notes and long spells of heightened intimacy that arch his body close to the keyboard. His closing “Ave verum corpus” — a limpid and lucid transcription for solo piano by Franz Liszt — was among the finest single performances I’ve heard all year.

He encored with the second movement of Bach’s “Organ Sonata No. 4 in E minor” (from August Stradel’s transcription); and what could have been a faithful genuflection sounded intensely personal, a flawless portrait drawn from memory. Ned might have grinned.

It’s fair to say Rorem was no fan of George Crumb, whom he once dubbed “the Vonnegut of music” and whose work he decried as “six effects in search of a mind.”

Crumb’s aggressively nontraditional scores — a vitrine of which were displayed outside the Coolidge Auditorium on Saturday — and his unorthodox approach to the instrument rubbed Rorem like steel wool on piano wire. Ned was irked to no end that “the critics should fall for it — should have indeed created the vogue,” a fickle flash of fashion he considered thoroughly “dumbfounding.”

“Admittedly, Crumb has ‘reintroduced’ expressivity to avant-garde concerts, which comes as a quaintness to blasé ears,” he wrote, “but his music is nothing more than expressivity — hanging unqualified in air.”

Rorem wasn’t wrong, exactly. Crumb’s expressivity — attained through amplification of the piano’s hidden resonances, alteration of its inner mechanics and other material interventions — hardly seems “unqualified” when channeled through the body of Margaret Leng Tan.

Tan is one of the foremost interpreters of the mid-century avant-garde, with a special affinity for the toy piano works of John Cage. Crumb dedicated his landmark “Metamorphoses: Book I” to the pianist, who premiered it at the National Gallery of Art in 2017. And on Saturday, she took on “Book II,” Crumb’s final work, completed shortly before his death in February of this year.

In the extraordinary scores of George Crumb, the mind of a composer and the hand of a poet

Before embarking on the Crumb and its 10 movements, each inspired by a different painting, Tan performed two introductory works: “Arched Interiors II,” a work for piano and “electro-acoustically transformed sound” originally composed for Tan in 1991 by longtime collaborator Christopher Hopkins, and “Changing Woman,” an unpublished work composed by Henry Cowell in 1954 for the modern dancer Jean Erdman.

In each, Tan transforms the piano. The Hopkins had her looping a hank of horsehair (or was it fishing line?) around the strings of the piano and sawing it back and forth like a stretch of floss, causing guttural growls with saw-blade edges to rise from the piano’s belly. A delay effect snatched and repeated cycles of gnarly textures through a pair of speakers. Hot harmonics filled the room as Tan slowly bowed the piano’s guts.

Switching to a second piano, Tan took a similarly tactile approach to the Cowell, its seven movements evoking natural auras through the muted thud of dampened strings, the slow scrape of Tan’s thumbnail down their winding lengths, the rhythmic knock of a mallet handle against the piano’s wooden bones. At one point she played the piano like a harp, fingering descending chords on the keyboard but voicing them with a metallic ascendant strum — a beguiling contradiction.

But it was in the Crumb that Tan’s expressiveness came into play. Overhead, each of the suite’s inspirational paintings — from Klee, Picasso, O’Keefe and others — was projected on a screen. Tan leaned into the piano, climbed underneath it, rested atop it, and here and there arced away to brush her hands across a tree of hanging percussion: a cylinder of brass, a wash of chimes, a small brass cymbal.

The sound world she created throughout was enveloping, warm and attentive. It’s hard to assign a word like “arbitrary” or “noise” to an experience that often feels like arbitrary noise, but Tan’s stewardship of Crumb’s formless compositions was forthrightly human, a full-body workout that seemed just as reliant on spirit.

As Rorem noted, it was pure, unqualified expression, hanging in the air. But two hours didn’t seem like nearly enough. (Sorry, Ned.)

It’s perhaps a little cruel that Rorem remains more widely remembered for his juicy journals than for the reliable generosity of his music. But Rorem, more than most, seemed to understand that legacy counted only for so much — that the composer’s primary task was to say what needed to be said, in a way that no one else could say it.

“The musical road I have long trod — a road whose landmarks and pitfalls are better described by the music itself than by any prose — has narrowed to a thread and reached a dead end on my doorstep,” he wrote in his diary on New Year’s Eve in 1969. “Indeed, only I can get away with the language I sing.”

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