Yesterday afternoon, on my way to Kudu Coffee — lots of my stuff gets written there — whom should I bump into but informally clad piano whiz Andrew von Oeyen in the distinguished company of opera/orchestral director Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, and I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo.
Oeyen and Villaume usually perform spectacular concertos together during Spoleto, but this year, von Oeyen delivered a smashing solo recital at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church instead, marking the Intermezzi series opener. And that's where I was around two hours later, as von Oeyen — now looking quite natty in his crisp white summer suit — greeted his capacity crowd and sat down to dazzle us with his first set of pieces by Frederic Chopin, who's often called "the poet of the piano."
He began with a charming threesome of the Polish master's light and delicious waltzes. The first was his No. 2 waltz in A-flat, a particularly spirited and frolicsome number. The following item, No. 12 in F minor, offered soft and mildly melancholic contrast. Then came the most famous of the lot, the scampering little confection known as the "minute waltz" — 'cause it doesn't take a whole lot longer than that to play it. Andrew had a lot of fun with these, catching their mostly happy and whimsical spirit beautifully.
Then it was on to several of the composer's meatier pieces, starting with the sinister and slashing second scherzo in B-flat minor. But it also sports a soft, then scampering middle section that — in von Oeyen's hands — tore my heart out. The same effect came with the following C-sharp minor étude from the Op. 25 set. Dreamy and pensive, it's the slowest of the lot — being mainly a study in tone production.
The final Chopin treat was one of his supreme achievements: the brooding and incredibly lovely (and difficult) Ballade No. 4, in F minor. It's one of his most profound creations, and von Oeyen delivered it with gut-wrenching soulfulness — not to mention his usual glittering fingerwork.
By coincidence, I'd heard the same number stunningly played just two days earlier in the Piccolo Young Artists series opener by 14-year-old prodigy Micah McLaurin, who just happened to be my concert buddy for this event (he gets a bunch of my spare tickets every Spoleto). We talked to Andrew afterwards, and he'll be getting together with Micah later in the festival to hear him play (and compare notes on their Ballade).
Back to business. The part of the program I was most curious about was our pianist's own composition, The Mill, based on a poem of the same title by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Andrew first set these dark and unsettling verses (implying a double suicide) in the form of a song for soprano and piano, and later adapted the piece for solo piano.
The music was most effective, capturing the poetry's eerie, gothic mood perfectly. It was quite unsettling, but mostly in subtle ways; never overtly horrific or overwrought. It achieved a certain timeless effect, thanks to his musical evocations of flowing "black water" and the constant rotation of a mill's waterwheel. Please, sir, we want some more!
In the wake of his Chopin idyll (and his own piece), von Oeyen couldn't have possibly finished up his recital in greater contrast than with the music of Sergei Prokofiev. His thorny Sonata No. 7 is one of his three so-called "wartime sonatas," reflecting the crushing destruction, death, and travail that afflicted Russia during World War II. Not much of it was pretty, but don't the uglier aspects of life bear musical expression, too?
The opening "Allegro inquieto" movement set the stage with martial airs and grim foreboding, plus intermittent episodes of violence and quiet despair. The central "Andante caloroso" served as a kind of lull between storms (or battles). But, with an impassioned outburst of its own, it offered no more than a few moments of restless relief. Then — BAM! — the final movement. A hard-driving toccata, marked "Precipitato," seemed to take us tumbling down a steep cliff back into the seething cauldron of war.
Von Oeyen simply blasted this one out of the ballpark. But, even as we heaved huge sighs of relief when it was over, we were on our feet, stomping and shouting. There were certainly a few folks there who didn't care much for it, but I do believe that mainstream American audiences, on the whole, are finally catching on to Prokofiev. His music may not always be beautiful or easy on the ear, but it's great therapy.
So then, let's tally up yet another triumph for one of the greatest pianists of his generation. And he's a really nice guy, too!