Say It and Play It: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 11, 2012
Saturday night brought the second concert in Brian Ganz‘s ten-year Chopin Project, in which he will play all the piano works of Frédéric Chopin at the Music Center at Strathmore, with assists from the National Philharmonic, the project’s co-presenter. Annapolis resident Ganz opened with the two polonaises of Chopin’s Op. 40. I’ve never much liked the first, the A major “Military,” which seems to be composed primarily of ringing gestures with little music in between, and Ganz romped through the chords that makes the piece, admittedly, a good concert opener without seeming to solve the boredom problem. It would turn out to be the only less-than-stellar performance Ganz gave in a truly satisfying evening.
In the second, C-minor polonaise, Ganz made the ruminative opening motif sound like a riddle and spent the rest of the polonaise methodically teasing out an answer, all while the dance rhythm pulsed clearly under the rest of Chopin’s invention. Quiet passages shimmered with color; more forceful passages rang out and filled the Music Center. Ganz didn’t use a lot of rubato, but he picked his spots well; he seemed primarily concerned with realizing his conception of the music rather than imposing an idea upon it. His judgment and precision gave the whole thing an irresistible musical momentum.
Then Ganz picked up a microphone, welcomed the (large) crowd, and told us what he’s up to with the Chopin Project. Without notes, he discussed eloquently the “mysterious soulfulness in Chopin’s music.” Sometimes he adopted the cadences and impassioned tone of a preacher, and as people who had just heard him testify at the piano we were ready to hear it.
The occasional discussions helped the audience understand what the piece meant to Ganz, making the subsequent performances more vivid for the understanding. After the discussion of “mysterious soulfulness,” Ganz brought out just those qualities in the Fantasie in F minor, which ended with a ravishing, suspended-in-midair coda that, in Ganz’s hands, seemed to hint at some redemption from the turbulence that had preceded it without necessarily promising anything. Before the Waltz in A-flat major, he took the time to explain to the audience the joke of the two-beat rhythm in the right hand against the waltz rhythm in the left hand, and how Chopin embroiders them together with additional melodic filigree; Ganz then made it all sound smooth, with the wit clearly audible but balanced with the other delightful aspects of the music.
The program as a whole was balanced nicely as well, with big serious pieces like the polonaises and the Fantasie spelled by smaller works that were at least less demanding for the audience. These produced some highlights too. Ganz showed a facility for navigating the finger-twisting runs Chopin so often demands, especially in the Fantasie-Impromptu in C minor, where the notes cascaded cleanly as a brook in springtime. Four mazurkas from Chopin’s Op. 6 received strongly rhythmic performances, in which melodies sounded forceful even when they weren’t loud thanks to their emphatic phrasing.
The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante sandwiched the mazurkas on the program’s second half. Giving the audience a chance to trickle in from intermission, Ganz introduced the Polonaise-Fantasie by musing on the idea of the word “fantasy,” likening it to “dreaming along with Chopin,” and then revealed that the P-F once had little appeal for him before discussing how he had come to esteem it highly. This little lecture gave the audience an out in case they didn’t quite get the work and a frame within which to apprehend it; Ganz’s performance embodied the idea of “dreaming along with Chopin,” in which the snatches of dance rhythms became ideas for rumination and reflection before transforming into something more.
For the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Ganz disclosed the traditional music-school reduction of its name, “Al Dente Spaghetti and Bland Mayonnaise,” and prefaced his discussion of the Polonaise by saying, “The word ‘fun’ is underrated in classical music.” After a magical, liquid Andante, he proved his point with a Grande Polonaise that swaggered, crashed, boasted, and generally made a ruckus. At times, Ganz seemed to have fun pushing until the music was barely in control, like a driver accelerating hard into a turn and holding onto the grab bar, but of course we were never actually in any danger, just having a ball. First Ganz told us, then he showed us. I look forward to hearing him do it again in the next Chopin Project concert on January 19, 2013.
THINGS THAT HAPPENED AT THIS CONCERT THAT BRIAN GANZ WAS NOT PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR
The crowd whooped it up when Ganz first came onto the stage, and applauded after the “Military” Polonaise even when they were listed without a gap in the program, which is cool. But then Ganz took a pregnant-pause moment during a transition between sections in the Fantasie — never removing his hands from the keyboard — and applause broke out that took way too long to silence. Credit to Ganz for maintaining his equanimity and continuing a brilliant performance.
Ganz would not have been affected, presumably, by the extremely ripe-smelling person who was sitting near me, but I got strong whiffs at various points throughout the concert. In case you are wondering, I definitely suggest that people shower on concert days.
Finally, the garage at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro Station, which serves as a place to park for the Music Center, was a total nightmare to get into and out of on Saturday night. Just saying. I’m guessing the problem with exiting was related to people emerging from the garage, seeing our in-progress dusting of snow, thinking “Oh [expletive]!” and being momentarily unable to drive as they contemplated the terrible, terrible sins that must have brought a fate such as late-nite wintry precipitation upon them.