By JANA HANCHETT
Portland recently experienced two eccentric piano concerts that relied less on pianism than on non-musical elements: mysticism and magic tricks.
“The sound of a piano has taught me a lot about the universe, about existence, and about my life,” said Lubomyr Melnyk. “Sound is a miracle, a mystery, and it dismantles the fairy tales that science tells us about the nature of sound.” The Ukrainian-Canadian pianist’s concert at Portland’s Yale Union last month was a philosophical foray into the effect of sound on the body.
Melnyk presented his first piece, Door Number 31, as a teaching tool for his so-called “continuous music,” which he devised in the 1970s while working with modern dancers at the Paris Opera. Continuous music is created by arpeggiating (playing the notes of the chord in sequence rather than simultaneously) chords in a pulsating rhythm and slowly changing the notes so that successive chords grow out of each other. Changes in pulse indicate musical transitions; Melnyk often played chords in patterns of triplets but changed the pulse to group the triplets in units of two or three. Heavy use of the sostenuto pedal allowed the piano strings to resonate freely.
The resulting sound was like a heavily perfumed cloud floating just above the piano, waiting for Melnyk to give a harmonic prod there and a rhythmic pull here. Known for his 19-notes per second in each hand, Melnyk arpeggiated chords quickly; like a heavy rainstorm, his fingers rain down notes with hypnotic results.
This mystical quality is reinforced by Melnyk’s tendency to speak of continuous music like a spiritual guide: “It was almost impossible in the 1970s and 80s to compose music that had a melody because the musical atmosphere dictated that everything had to be dissonant and atonal,” he recalled. “But I felt that melody was an important part of music. The idea of melody is part of our soul, so melody crept into continuous music and required from me a new technical capacity I didn’t yet possess, the ability to let the piano sing the melody. The pianist makes melody, but the piano sings it.”
Melnyk’s long, grey beard and soft voice endeared him to the approximately 100 people in attendance. All the available chairs were filled, so people stood against the walls and sat on the floor around the piano. His two-piano piece Butterfly was inspired by children listening to him practice piano at a hotel. Melnyk recorded the first piano part earlier that afternoon, and it was played back through speakers while he performed the second piano part live.
Melnyk’s longest piece at YU, lasting about 35 minutes, depicted the life of a windmill. Melnyk told the audience a little story before playing: Breathed to life by the wind, the enormous gears crank into motion. Just as the windmill reaches its optimum performance, though, a terrible storm destroys the windmill. Out of the mass of rubble rises the soul of the windmill singing a song to mankind of hope, joy, and thankfulness for the millions of colors it witnessed on earth.
“We are like this windmill,” concluded Melnyk. “Just as windmills are placed where they get hit by the most sleet, rain, snow, and wind, so each of us are put in the worst possible place in the world. Every day is a battle for each individual, but there is also so much wonder and beauty. Listen to the windmill and open your ears and eyes to the color around you.”
The pulsating waves of harmonic changes slowed down the listener’s breathing, and by the end of the concert a majority of the audience had fallen asleep. Perhaps this is what Melnyk was aiming for. “In listening to and playing continuous music, like in tai chi, your body melts into space; it becomes a vapor,” he said. “There’s no separation between the body and the sound.”
From Mysticism to Magic Tricks: Igor Lipinski
A few days after Melnyk’s concert, Polish pianist Igor Lipinski presented a salon-inspired concert at Portland’s Polish Hall. Transporting his audience to the mid-19th century, Lipinski performed nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes, and magic tricks as though to a group of friends at a dinner party. Warming up with Chopin’s Nocturne op. 9 no 1, Lipinski then rolled off Paderewski’s Nocturne op. 16 no. 4, a sentimental after-dinner treat that featured syrupy harmonies and schmaltzy rubato. Godowski’s “The Old Vienna” and Zigmunt Stojowski’s “Song of Love” were in the same vein. A smattering of Chopin mazurkas twirled out before the concert mercifully livened up with a magic trick.
“All the composers I have presented to you are linked to Johann Sebastian Bach. So I will present to you Bach’s fugue from his Toccata and Fugue in E Minor and show you one way I challenge myself to memorize lots of different things at once,” He then pulled out a deck of cards, and like a true magician asked for a volunteer from the audience, who shuffled the deck. Lipinski then took 15 seconds (ticked off dramatically by an old-fashioned metronome) to flip through and memorize the order of the deck of cards. With a flourish, Lipinski began the fugue and as he called out the cards his volunteer held them up one by one to show the audience if he was correct. Lipinski shouted out each card in rhythmic recitation, and whatever reality existed behind his magical powers, Lipinski’s Victor Borge-like performance was a fabulous parlor trick.
After intermission, Lipinski returned with four Agnieszka Laska dancers to perform the first twelve of Chopin’s preludes op. 28, choreographed by Agnieszka Laska. Hans van Bülow’s programmatic titles to Chopin’s short preludes such as “Reunion,” “Presentiment to Death,” and “Polish Dancer” helped inspire the dancers depicting love, loss, and youthful rebellion who more than made up for the lack of conviction in the piano performance.
Lipinski has chops but, like Victor Borge, succeeds best as a theatrical entertainer. Lipinski’s wink and nod approach to concertizing brought the audience together in gentle fun-making of classical formalities while simultaneously encouraging delight in classical music. Putting on a blindfold, he played, not Chopin’s Minute Waltz, but the “half-of-a-Minute Waltz,” making a show of peeking at the keys while his fingers flew through piece. He also poked gentle fun at the audience, performing Marc-André Hamelin’s Chopin-esque “Valse Irritation d’après Nokia ‘Ringtone Waltz.’” These theatrics kept the audience clapping for more and after three encores, Lipinski ended the evening with his nostalgic interpretation of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp minor.
The criticism could be made that both Melnyk and Lipinski hide behind smoke and mirrors; neither displayed the intense pianistic focus required to illuminate the many textures and timbres hidden within the instrument. But that kind of playing isn’t their goal. Melnyk’s experience of reality and the nature of people drives his process of continuous music. Judging by the crowd at the merch table, the audience resonated with Melnyk’s understanding of the world.
Lipinski, a doctoral student at Eastman School of Music, delights in uniting his interest in the salon culture of 19th century Europe with his particular flair for theatre; the result is an entertaining evening full of laughter. Ultimately, Melnyk and Lipinski’s specialized approaches to the world of piano forge positive connections with audience members, a valuable trait that’s worth listening to.
Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.
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