Serkin seranades crowd with classics

Friday night’s visiting artist recital featured acclaimed American pianist Peter Serkin, who performed works by 20th century composers Stefan Wolpe, Toru Takemitsu and Arnold Schoenber along with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli. Serkin is recognized in the program as “an artist of passion and integrity” and as “one of the most thoughtful and individualistic musicians appearing before the public today.” He is an advocate for composers of this century and the last, and he also displays a finely-developed sensitivity for a complex work like the Diabelli Variations.

The concert opened with Stefan Wolpe’s atonal Toccata in Three Parts for Solo Piano. Wolpe wrote the piece in July 1941 and dedicated it to his wife, Irma Wolpe. The first movement is marked Allegro moderato (moderately fast), while the second is slow, an Adagio that was interestingly marked, “Too much suffering in the world.” The last movement is a fast and flamboyant fugue. Born in Berlin in 1902, Wolpe compositions are influenced by Dadaism, jazz and popular music. His teachers and influencers included Franz Schreker, Ferruccio Busoni, Paul Hindemith and Anton Webern. After leaving Germany in 1933, he lived in Austria, Palestine and finally New York City, where he died in 1972. Over time, Wolpe’s style became more eclectic and less strictly twelve-tone; Serkin paid particular attention to conveying the intricacy of this music.

The second piece on the program was For Away by Toru Takemitsu, the composer of the score for Akiro Kurosawa’s film Ran. This work was written in 1973 for Roger Woodward, an Australian classical concert pianist. According to the Naxos Classical Music Group website, the work is “nocturnal and meditative … inspired by Indonesian gamelan music.” Born in Tokyo in 1930, Takemitsu was a versatile composer, inspired by traditional Japanese and Indonesian music, American composers like John Cage and European idioms, specifically those of Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen. On Peter Serkin’s album, The Ocean that has no East and no West, the late American composer Peter Lieberson spoke about the time he and Serkin and others spent with  Takemitsu in Toyko: “Though he was the senior of our group by many years, Toru stayed up with us every night and literally drank us under the table. I was confirmed in my impression of Toru as a person who lived his life like a traditional Zen poet.” Takemitsu died in 1996, but his work lived on through Serkin, who sought the piece out for its original inspirational musical narrative, expressed its introspective nature, bringing out its contrasts.

The third piece on the program took us back to the intriguing life of Arnold Schoenberg. His twelve-tone Suite for Solo Piano, Op. 25, was written between 1921 and 1923, at a time when Schoenberg was developing his dodecaphonic, serial method of music composition while teaching at the Vienna Conservatory. In 1923, Schoenberg’s first wife, the inspiration behind Transfigured Night, died. According to the Arnold Schönberg Center, “the Suite Op. 25 harkens back to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as, indirectly, Mozart and the music of the 19th century – placing the historical, obsolescent forms in a new context (as Schoenberg himself had attempted in 1897 with his Gavotte and Musette for String Orchestra).” Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, and left Germany for the United States in 1933. He died in Los Angeles in 1951. Serkin traced the emotionally charged and adventurous facets of this music, conveying its links to the past, as light dance forms of the Baroque in serial guise.

After the intermission, Serkin performed Beethoven’s Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120, written between 1819 and 1823. In 1819, Diabelli sent his waltz to Beethoven and 50 other composers, among them Archduke Rudolph, the imperial prince of Austria, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, Karlbrenner, Moscheles, Liszt and one of Mozart’s sons. Diabelli asked each to contribute one variation, published all the variations, and used the profits to benefit orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars. Forty-eight of the other 50 composers wrote only the one variation they were asked for; Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart wrote two. Beethoven alone far surpassed the request by writing thirty-three variations. Serkin’s keen musical sensitivity came to full bloom with his attention to the emotional nuances of Beethoven’s famous work. After almost an hour of consecutive performance, Serkin returned to the stage twice to receive the standing ovation of the Brooks-Rogers recital hall audience.

Caleb Baer/staff photographeR Playing on the ivories, Peter Serkin tickled the crowd with pieces from 20th century composers.