Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Eric Lu Plays Chopin, Chopin, Chopin....in South Pasadena (Vol. 6, No. 8)

Eric Lu, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

It is such a pleasure to discover a new talent, a new way of hearing and interpreting Chopin's music. We have had this delightful opportunity during the all-Chopin concert by a young American pianist, Eric Lu, at the South Pasadena Library on August 30, 2015.

Mr. Lu, born in 1997 (gasp! he is merely 18!) has recently won the first prize and the concerto prize at the 9th National Chopin Competition in Miami, organized by the Chopin Foundation of the United States.  In August 2014, he won the first prize at the 9th Moscow International Chopin Competition for Young Pianists. A long list of his competition victories includes also the Minnesota International e-Piano Junior Competition in 2013 and the 12th Ettlingen International Piano Competition in Germany in 2010 (where he was "praised for a musical understanding far beyond his years").  He has also won awards at the Junior Academy Eppan in Italy, and performed in Germany, Italy, China, the U.S. (Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Birmingham, and more).  He started piano lessons at the age of six (Ms. Dorothy Shi). At the New England Conservatory Preparatory School he was a student of Alexander Korsantia and Mr. A. Ramon Rivera. In 2013 he enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he currently studies with Jonathan Biss and Robert McDonald, while also studying with the famous Chopin Piano Competition winner in Warsaw, Dang Thai Son.

Lu's hands, Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

In accordance with its title, Chopin, Chopin, Chopin... Lu's recital featured only one non-Chopin work, an Impromptu by Franz Schubert, brilliantly played in its shimmering tranquility, an oasis of calm under the fingers of the master.  The contrast of the youthful appearance of the 18-years-old pianist and his musical maturity and technical prowess was one of the most striking characteristics of the entire recital. If you closed your eyes, and forgot that the pianist is this thin, tall boy in an elegant evening suit, with meticulously arranged white shirt cuffs  (a whiff of Chopin's dandy-ism and his focus on elegant attire could be felt here), you were transported to a grand 19th century concert hall, to listen to one of the grand, truly grand masters.  And I do not mean here, that his performance was somehow antiquated and old-fashioned. Not at all.

What I found most extraordinary alluring, was the full emotional span, intensity of expression, diversity of touch, richness of instrumental color, and perfectly crafted large-scale forms.  Of course, keyboard virtuosity... Asked later, what is the most remarkable characteristic of Chopin's music in his eyes, maybe his favorite, or the hardest or the easiest piece to play, he answered: "Everything is difficult. Chopin is unbelievably difficult, with the complexity of rhythms, internal polyphonies and intertwined melodies, that sing under the fingers, but especially the touch, the infinite variations of sound tone created through touch."

Polish Consul Ignacy Zarski welcomes guests and introduces the program.
Photo by Maja Trochimczyk. 

The first half of the program revealed Lu's scope of virtuosic technique, expressive range, and musicality.  How do you convey in music the depth of emotion? By subtle variations in tempo, dynamic, and rhythmic flexibility of motives and phrases, the flexibility known in Chopin's music as "tempo rubato" the "stolen time" - where one hand maintains a rhythm while the other "steals" microseconds and seconds from notes to add them to other notes and thus shift focus, create emotional arches, a play of expectations and resolutions.

The first piece on the program, Barcarole in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, composed in 1845/6 is the perennial favorite among Chopin's works for many pianists, especially outside of Poland. Its undulating rhythm captures the swaying of a Venetian gondola on the water, while an enchanting melody soars above, in the stratosphere of strange harmonies, embroidered figurations, and a mood of sublime tranquility, coupled with a "slightly wistful tone." For a pianist, whose task is to take his listeners into musical trance, the technical difficulties are formidable - parallel thirds and sixth in the right hand with long stretches of music flowing like water in the left. There are moments towards the end of the Barcarole, of harmonic uncertainties and moonlight beam ornaments, that give me shivers every time they are played right - truly otherworldly. Time shifts to a different dimension, it is raised to a power of two, could say composer Hanna Kulenty, who made construction of such times and trances, the crux of her compositional technique. But Chopin knew it too, and let us glimpse at this enchanted sonorous moonscape that Lu evoked so well.

Stylish auditorium at South Pasadena Library. Photo by Christopher Onzol

"So far, so good," I sighed getting ready for the series of Mazurkas from Op. 59 - No. 1 in A Minor, No. 2 in A-flat Major, and No. 3 in F-sharp Minor. Known for their capacity to embody the emotional category of "nostalgia" or, in Polish, "żal"- this nameless, wordless sorrow of having lost something one may never find again, the Mazurkas are also stylized national dances, from the slowest kujawiak to the fastest oberek. The three late Mazurkas Op. 59, composed in 1845, dwell in the middle of the tempo range and brilliantly portray the "sweetest sorrow" of a lost country, imagined in the beauty of its rural summers and dancing nights. Polish pianist Ludwik Bronarski, noted in the first Mazurka, in A Minor, the presence of "the most beautiful sounds that it is possible to produce from the piano." Indeed, the sounds created under Eric Lu's fingers were truly enchanting, even if the piano itself left something to be desired, providing to the disposal of the sublime virtuoso somewhat uneven and even slightly mistuned sonorities.

No matter. The second Mazurka, known for its tone of a ballade and moments of nearly heroic mood, coupled with incomparable sweetness, and folksy accompaniment patterns, straight from the dance floor of the Polish national mazur had its manuscript sent to Chopin's friend, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. The third Mazurka beautifully rounds up the set and pulls the listener into a summer evening mazur dance, with "its sweeping, unconstrained gestures, its verve, élan, exuberance, and also, more importantly, the occasional suppressing of that vigour and momentum, in order to yield up music that is tender, subtle, delicate" - as stated noted Chopin expert, Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski. Each Mazurka is different, and Eric Lu found in each diverse sonic and emotional treasures.

I'm starting to yield to a tendency to overuse such words as "delightful," "incomparable," and "exquisite" and veering into purple prose in a description of Lu's performance, for which I apologize in advance, but it is hard to avoid expressing delight after a concert that delightful. Here I go again...

Eric Lu performs. Photo by Krzysztof Onzol.

Mr. Lu followed the Mazurkas Op. 59 (that were composed in 1845 at the same time as the Barcarole and thus shared with the larger masterpiece some structural, textural and thematic ideas), with a sweet interlude in the form of the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42. Written about five years before the Mazurkas (ca. 1839-40), the Waltz has been called a "dance poem" with its five distinct intertwined themes contrasting in their use of trills, figurations, and continuous, expressive melodies.

The first part of the recital ended with one of the best known Chopin's compositions, the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (composed in 1842 in Paris and Nohant) and dedicated to Baroness Charlotte de Rotschild. A whole library of books and essays has been written about this monumental Ballade, that begins with delicate "bell"-like sonorities, to evolve into dramatic, and even, heroic arches and avalanches of sound.  Many commentators felt a compulsion to discover a hidden plot - a poetic ballade by Adam Mickiewicz, perhaps - underneath the masterly construction built from a mosaic of tones. Prof. Tomaszewski dismisses these efforts with by emphasizing that "the music of this Ballade imitates nothing, illustrates nothing. It expresses a world that is experienced and represents a world that is possible, ideal and imagined."

And much was possible in the interpretation of the Ballade by Eric Lu. Here his ability to construct large-scale forms, develop and intertwine themes, pull the listeners into a narrative that is at times melancholy, at times sorrowful, at times dramatic and turbulent, but ends in a tranquility of a reconciliation. No wonder, the citations for Lu's awards so often speak of a maturity far above his years. I admired, in this piece particularly, his ability to contrast and stretch tempi, his use of tempo rubato, accelerandos, and ritardandos, and his ability to maintain the sense of a continuous narrative, of a musical whole.

He received a standing ovation at the end of this performance, a well deserved accolade... What would be life worth, if we did not have these sunny summer afternoons when music speaks to us so eloquently and touches us so deeply?

After the concert, I asked Eric what he loved the most about Chopin, what was the trait that he cherished above all others. His response - like his interpretations - was unexpectedly mature. "Chopin's intimate, personal voice" - he said - "his music speaks to all of his listeners directly, as if each person was the only one, as if each was alone - immersed in, surrounded by the music. This delicate, wise, intimate and individual voice is the greatest asset of Chopin's music that carries it over the ages."  I had to agree, as I have seen in countless YouTube comments of very young listeners who admit that they "love this song" and rhapsodize about how it perfectly captures their uncontrollable emotions, that they cannot even name.

Intermission: Consul Ignacy Zarski, Maja Trochimczyk, Marzena Wisniewska (Polam), 
Maria Kubal (Modjeska Club). Photo by Christopher Onzol.

Two Presidents and a Star: Elizabeth Kanski (President of Polish-American Film Society) with
Linda Plochocki (President of the Modjeska Foundation of Orange County) with Jane Kaczmarek.
Photo by Maja Trochimczyk.

After the intermission, the summer sun outside barely started to fade when we were immersed in the moonlight of the Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, also of a peculiar "ballade-like" quality.  This prepared us to the wild ride and exorbitant beauties of the entire cycle of 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Composed between 1835 and 1839, partly in Paris, and partly at Valldemosa, Majorca where Chopin spent the winter of 1839 with George Sand and her children, the cycle was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach's Das Wohl-Temperierte Klavier (The Wel-Tempered Clavier), cycle of preludes and fugues.  The Preludes Op. 28 traverse the entire range of tonalities and harmonies, starting from C Major and visiting each of the keys possible on the piano for a brief sojourn and a vista of an entirely different musical climate. The cycle was compared to a mosaic a la sonata form, and to a grand narrative.

Photo by Christopher Onzol

Over the centuries, some individual preludes received nicknames, like the "Raindrop" that everyone knows about and almost everyone heard played, if not on the concert stage, at least in the movies (Prelude in D-flat Major, No. 15). This prelude is a rare example of Chopin himself giving a programmatic title to his composition: with a handwritten note in a sheet music belonging to one of his students, not in the actual publication.  While being so well known, this prelude's potential impact borders on boredom: we have heard it soo many times... But we never heard it played as Eric Lu interpreted it, and that is the difference. I was entirely enchanted by Lu's ability to create a portrayal of exquisite tranquility dissolving into equally exquisite sorrow in the infinitely quiet return of the theme after the tempestous middle part of the Prelude. I think that his use of dynamic shadings, precise articulation and delineation of phrases, fluid "tempo rubato" and the previously mentioned caressing "touch" had a lot to do with the unforgettable uniqueness of Lu's interpretation.

The cycle op. 28 contains many extremely difficult, dramatic and fast preludes, overflowing with passages of heavy, parallel chords thundering up and down the keyboard. In-between are moments of tranquility, funereal sadness, or whimsy. Mr. Lu exposed the raw richness of emotions, textures, and expressions contained in the whole cycle. In addition to the Raindrop - that I have never heard played so well before, and I heard it almost too many times... (and I played it myself, for my own edification), I would like to single out for praise his interpretations of the charmingly capricious Prelude G Major (No. 3), the extreme brevity of moto perpetuo in D Major (No. 5), the wild and eerie sonorities of the ghostly dark Prelude in E-flat Minor (No. 14)... so well contrasted with the following melancholy serenity of the Raindrop...

These numbers and descriptions could be multiplied, as the pianist took his audience on the trip of their lifetime.  However, all journeys come to a close and our Chopin journey ended, too.

While sad to let the pianist go, we were grateful for his revelatory "other" side - the Schubert Impromptu played as an encore - or rather, an extensive, wise, virtuosic, and expressive musical farewell, that dissolved into silence thus giving the listeners something to think about, instead of making them jump to their feet in a standing ovation after a thundering cadential passage. The enthusiastic applause continued for a while after the pianist left. More, more, more - and no doubt, there will be more, as Mr. Lu will continue his musical explorations and enchantments. We will be delighted to follow the career of this young contender in the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, where he will encounter and compete with other precocious, brilliant talents.

Entrance to the Auditorium in South Pasadena. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk 

Eric Lu's Pasadena concert was organized by the Southwest Council of the Chopin Foundation of the United States, established in 2014, and dedicated to the support the young generation of American pianists, pursuing their studies and careers in the realm of classical piano. The Council focuses on the historical significance, creative implications, and a place in modern society for the music of Fryderyk Chopin and will organize concerts, recitals and competitions to spread the knowledge of classical music and Chopin,  in particular. President Christopher Onzol was joined by the creme-de-creme of California Polish-American society, including Consul for Cultural Heritage and Polonia, Hon. Ignacy Zarski, that started the event with an inspirational speech about Chopin's place in our lives and hearts, Artistic Director of Polish Film Festival in Los Angeles, Vladek Juszkiewicz, and a staunch supporter of Polish music, actress Jane Kaczmarek.

Vladek Juszkiewicz, Jane Kaczmarek, Maja Trochimczyk, Christopher Onzol and Consul Ignacy Zarski.
Photo by Katarzyna Pytlarczyk, Consulate's Intern.

At the end, Mr. Lu was surrounded by listeners, wishing the personally thank him for the afternoon of great music, and went home with a copy of our poetry anthology, "Chopin with Cherries" as seen in the picture below.  If you want to hear more performances or learn more about him, visit his channel on YouTube, listen to his version of solo piano part from Chopin's First Piano Concerto (2013), or the Nocturne op. 27 No. 2  (2015). No wonder he wins one competition after another...

Trochimczyk, Eric Lu and Consul Zarski with a copy of Chopin with Cherries.
Photo by Christopher Onzol.

To support the SW Council's work please visit the website: www.chopinswcouncil.com/membership-donation, or, to add your name to their mailing list contact: www.chopinswcouncil.com/contact-us.

Christopher Onzol, President of SW Council,Katarzyna Pytlarczyk, Eric Lu, 
Polish Consul for Cultural Heritage Ignacy Zarski, and Maja Trochimczyk.
Photo by Witold Sokolowski.