by Greg Hettmansberger
Some performers win the big competition early, start bouncing around the globe playing a limited repertoire, bask in the early white-hot hype, and eventually end up fighting off…..the next performer who just won the big competition.
Then there are artists like pianist Christopher Taylor: wins some early acclaim, but shuns the marketing-hype route, and instead quietly builds a career relatively unnoticed — except by every major critic of the cities he eventually plays in, and the select group of his peers who relish the opportunity to collaborate with him.
So Taylor may not command the accompanying media glitz of say, an Olga Kern (who will adorn the Overture Center stage on Oct. 15 with the Madison Symphony), but Friday night at Mills Hall the question lingered: does musical Madison realize (as with the Pro Arte Quartet) just what caliber of musical treasure patiently toils on our isthmus?
The answer is encouraging: Mills Hall was filled close to capacity, the majority of the empty seats being in the two upper sections on the side facing toward Taylor. But from the opening bars of Schumann’s “Waldszenen” I was glad to be sitting where I could not see Taylor’s hands, so as not to be distracted from the glorious palette of sounds he brought forth.
Intermittently, Taylor briefly discussed the program choices, and the Schumann was in honor of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. Of course, Taylor could have chosen any number of suitable works, but the choice of these “Forest Scenes” was particularly welcome, being a musical road far less traveled in concert. Of the nine short movements, a couple of moments stood out: the “Lonely Flowers” emerged as if Taylor had musingly improvised it on the spot, and in “Bird as Prophet” a rhetorical question haunted the listener: “How does a musician make music flow like that without an obvious and overriding sense of tempo?” If such a question could be answered, then of course there would a lot more musicians of the magnitude of Christopher Taylor.
Taylor admitted that Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Variations in C-minor, an unpublished work, had nothing to do with anniversaries in multiples of one hundred. But the 1806 work, in the same key as the Piano Concerto No. 3 and ubiquitous Symphony No. 5, recalled the same Beethovenian angst and logic of those more famous works.
The second half opened with two seminal works of Arnold Schoenberg, the Op. 11 Klavierstucke and “Six short piano pieces,” Op. 19, both written and published in 1910-11. Explaining with humor and clarity, Taylor illuminated the turning point nature of these pieces, as in these works Schoenberg abandoned tonality (“Farewell to C-major,” Taylor said with a smile). The works gave Taylor new opportunities to display virtuosity placed at the service of compelling expression.
The finale was Stravinsky’s 1921 arrangement of three movements from his 1910 ballet, “Petrouchka.” Unlike Schoenberg, Stravinsky was nowhere near abandoning tonality, but he did stretch harmonic functions in new directions. Having originally done so in a work for large orchestra, and full of Stravinsky’s trademark rhythmic complexities, the resulting piano arrangement frequently sounds as if three hands are required at a minimum. Taylor not only met the daunting technical challenges, but managed to recall some of the original orchestral colors — and elicited some fresh ones from his Steinway.
The richly deserved standing ovation was met with a single encore: a neglected rag of Scott Joplin, “Stop Time Rag.”