Bolai Cao review: Abundant talent

Portland Piano International recital coupled a rising young piano star with veteran Oregon composer's newest work.


“Abundance” seemed to be the theme of Portland Piano International’s latest Rising Stars / Oregon Composers Commissioning Project concerts, a cheering offering for the cold gray days of February. After two previous concerts, including one in Salem, Valentine’s Day saw pianist Bolai Cao at Portland Piano Company, playing sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, studies by Frédéric Chopin, Reminiscences of Don Giovanni by Franz Liszt, and last but emphatically not least, a brand new work by Oregon composer Bryan Johanson. The Portland State University professor of music’s work was composed in homage to Scarlatti and bears the same Italian title “Essercizi” that Scarlatti himself called his sonatas.

Abundance because:

• Scarlatti wrote over a hundred sonatas a year for the last five years of his nearly 72-year long life;

• Chopin at the opposite end of his adulthood – before he even left the Poland of his youth for Paris – had already composed many highly original studies;

• Johanson’s new piece bristled with entertaining ideas;

• the Liszt, like nearly all the works on the program, unleashed a superabundance of notes from the piano.

Cao at 19 is even younger than Chopin was when he left Warsaw, but he cuts an imposing figure and his pianism was imposing as well. Two of his four Scarlatti selections were of the “OMG” variety, infamous among pianists for their lightning-fast figuration and wide leaps, but Cao displayed barely a trace of warm-up jitters. I would have preferred a more lyrical approach to a couple of the Chopin studies, including the well-known “Black Key” (op. 10 #5), which has many intricacies for the ear’s delight but which flew by at the pace of an east wind out of the Columbia River Gorge. On the other hand, the deceptively difficult “Waterfall” etude (op. 10 #1) was appropriately tumultuous and astonishingly accurate, and Cao’s lyrical side did come out to play in op. 10 #3, which a century later could have been a crooner’s hit.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Bolai Cao performed at Portland Piano International. Photo: Rich Brase.

Without losing any accuracy, and even more astonishing, any clarity, Cao reached the apex of tumult in Liszt’s madcap virtuosic paraphrase of the Mozart opera. Just about every trick from the Liszt playbook is in there – wide leaps, thundering octaves including blind octaves (playing very fast octave scales with alternating hands), and runs and arabesques galore – and yet, while those in the know roll their eyes, it somehow manages to stop just short of tastelessness. To realize its potential takes extraordinary pianism and Cao was equal to the task. Yes, I laughed at the end, but not from derision. Instead, it felt like popping the cork off Mozart’s celebrated Champagne Aria.

Johanson’s work didn’t require such fancy acrobatics, but it had its own challenges and brought another appreciative smile to my face. Its three movements, fast / slow / fast, each hewed closely to the model of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which were a milestone in the development of the form, as imaginative in their day as Beethoven’s 50 years later. The first movement punctuated fast runs and contrapuntal tricks with fanfares on exotic chords. The fanfares reappeared, subdued and almost unrecognizable – more like cries in the wilderness – in the pensive, even mournful slow movement. Intuitively I wanted them to be echoed in a triple articulation of the final chord, but things didn’t turn out that way. All long faces vanished in the finale, which romped to a thumping finish through short quotes from not only Scarlatti but also J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel (all three, by the way, born in 1685). A couple of the quotes added to the humor by squirting dollops of unexpected harmonic stability into Johanson’s somewhat angular lines and delightfully off-kilter yet ultimately center-seeking harmonies.

If you missed the concert and are feeling a resulting lack of abundance in your listening life, don’t fret. This was only the third of six such concerts this season, and six more are planned for next season. The fourth hasn’t yet been announced, so keep an eye on PPI’s website and Oregon ArtsWatch. PPI’s next recital features another young piano star, 28-year-old Joseph Moog, playing music by JS Bach, Liszt and Chopin on March 12 at Portland State University.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer.

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