Kurkowicz left listeners wanting more

Kurkowicz performed a program with Stevenson that moved audiences with its sadness and drama. Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.
Kurkowicz performed a program with Stevenson that moved audiences with its sadness and drama. Photo courtesy of The Washington Post.

Lyell B. Clay Artists in Residence Joanna Kurkowicz and Doris Stevenson’s “Mystical Voices of Eastern Europe” faculty recital on Saturday night in Brooks-Rogers Auditorium was a knockout.

Kurkowicz introduced the recital as highlighting an ongoing project in which she has been playing pieces by 20th- and 21st-century Eastern European composers. The link between the works, Kurkowicz said, was a “sense of reflection, sadness and drama.” And she was right — Kurkowicz captivated the audience with her rich sound, which evoked an ungraspable, poignant frustration. The program was impressively long, with Stevenson accompanying Kurkowicz on piano for three out of the eight pieces, and the quality did not flag one bit.

The recital started with Aram Khachaturian’s “Adagio,” from his ballet Gayane. There was a paradox in how Kurkowicz performed the piece — “Adagio” is simple, unadorned, with a single melody line, yet her sound immediately filled the concert hall, conveying an unbelievably bare sense of emptiness.

Kurkowicz kept the audience on its toes, however — following up the slow, sad Khachaturian with Hanna Kulenty’s Still Life with the Violin, which was the aural equivalent of a high-speed chase. Even Brooks-Rogers’ amplification system couldn’t keep up with Kurkowicz’s command of successive runs. The piece was a short, tightly contained burst of energy. Its urgency was only intensified by Kurkowicz’s sharp ponticello, playing close to the bridge, which gave it a guttural, raspy sound.

The next two pieces in the recital, T’filah (Prayer) by Lera Auerbach and Postludium by Valentin Silvestrov, were introduced together by Kurkowicz. The former pointedly remembers the Holocaust, while the latter is a hollow remembrance of the mood, of something past. Kurkowicz began T’filah with a full-bodied, mid-range phrase that soon gave way to a short segment filled with uneasy, bouncing spiccato. Her pause and transition into Postludium was seamless; the Auerbach and Silvestrov were excellently paired, culminating in an aural peace of sorts. Kurkowicz punctuated Postludium’s gliding scales with simultaneous plucking of the strings. Using the full length of her bow on select phrases gave the piece a robust texture.

Stevenson joined Kurkowicz for their performance of Karol Syzmanowski’s Dancer on the Tightrope. True to the piece’s name, Kurkowicz barely brushed the strings of the violin to give it a quick, cutting sound full of tension. Stevenson played on the piano wire itself — a haunting, reverberating variation of 20th century avant-garde composer John Cage’s prepared piano, in which he placed objects on or between its strings to alter the sound. In the phrases where Kurkowicz and Stevenson came together, their sound seemed to flood the auditorium and wash over the audience. Kurkowicz’s sound throughout Dancer was quiet but pronounced, wispy, ghostly — as if she was creating space between her playing and the notes, almost pushing the sound of her playing to the background.

Kurkowicz and Stevenson closed their recital with a rendition Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major, which was full of play and seemed to bend the rules of classical order, making for a majestic, evocative work. In the “Moderato” movement, Stevenson’s piano accompaniment provided a vigorous background to Kurkowicz’s sharp sound, which was simultaneously absorbed by and reflected off by the piano. If the mood in “Moderato” was reminiscent of a rainy day, the last movement, “Allegro con brio,” completely subsumed it, finishing the performance with a sense of triumphant, soaring wholeness. Ending on Prokofiev seemed to be a deliberate choice, and a good one at that — Kurkokwicz and Stevenson came to such a resounding, uplifting end that one can only imagine and hope to hear the rest of the works in Kurkowicz’s project covering Eastern European music.