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Alchemical pianism

Michael Hannan listens to Lisa Moore play in Byron Bay

Michael Hannan is a composer, keyboard performer, music researcher and Professor of Contemporary Music at Southern Cross University, Lismore.

With a program of works composed almost entirely by living American composers, Australian-born New York resident Lisa Moore wove her unique musical magic for an audience that may not have known any of the pieces before hearing them that evening. Moore specialises in performing new music by composers she has worked with closely. Thus she is able to introduce each piece with personal anecdotes and creative insights. The demanding repertoire she performs somehow seems more approachable for her warm observations and sense of humour.

The program began with performances of 2 works which displayed a strong sense of nostalgia. John Halle's Second Childhood (2000) had moments of dissonance and abrasiveness, but at its heart were Gershwin-like blues references and the classic piano rag form, although taken to a new level of virtuosity. The choice of this work to open the concert was a clever way for Moore to ease her audience into her specialised new music repertoire. Likewise, Paul Lanksy's It All Adds Up (2005) is a rhapsodic exploration of traditional and modern harmonic styles. It takes us through a variety of accessible piano textures, including toccata passages, elaborated decorations of chords, and bitonality resulting from different left and right hand patterns. Both these elegant works were played with effortless grace.

But the mood of the concert changed radically with Julia Wolfe's 'my lips from speaking' (1993), an abrasive work for 6 pianos, here performed by Lisa Moore as a live solo part with computer playback of the other 5 piano parts. Like Halle and Lansky, Wolfe also takes her inspiration from earlier music: her work is based on a few chords from the opening of Aretha Franklin's recording of the song Think. For the most part, however, a savage dissonance is imposed upon the source material. This was an excellent vehicle for Moore to demonstrate the great power and energy of her pianism. It is extremely loud, aggressive and rhythmically disjointed but in the centre of the work, there is some relief as it builds to a phenomenal funky groove between the soloist and the backing parts. The piece is both exciting and disturbing but perhaps goes on a little too long.

After an interval the concert resumed in a considerably more subdued mood with Martin Bresnick's Dream of the Lost Traveller (1997), based on a poem and drawing by William Blake. This subtle piece begins with an exploration of the major/minor dichotomy and works its way somewhat minimally through a variety of interesting piano textural ideas leading eventually to a meditative and folk-like song setting of the Blake poem. Moore handled with aplomb the somewhat unusual requirement for a concert pianist to sing a song while playing.

Lisa Moore's performance of three of György Ligeti's Etudes for piano (book 1, 1985) was the highlight of the concert for me. These highly inventive virtuosic movements by the only non-American on the program, are the more remarkable because Ligeti is not a pianist. In the first of the etudes, Fanfares, Moore maintained a suitable nimbleness of touch for the bitonal scale pattern which pervades the work; in Arc-de-ciel she achieved a mysterious and dreamy mood through its rich chordal textures; and in Automne à Varsovie she struck an excellent balance between the drama of the chordally textured melodic materials with the lightness of the accompanying multi-octave figurations.

Moore's tour de force was arguably her performance of Frederic Rzewski's Piano Piece No 4 (1977), a remarkable work based initially on rapid repeated notes, said to represent the gun shots of the Chilean Pinochet regime. They start at the very top of the instrument and gradually work their way down to the bottom. A lyrical passage then leads to use of a Chilean folk melody which is subjected to a number of dramatic textural variations including the gun-fire idea to end the piece. In introducing the work Lisa Moore indicated that it was Rzewski who had inspired her to pursue her career as an interpreter of new piano music. It certainly showed in her dynamic and charismatic performance and was a fitting end to a remarkable display of musicianship.

Lisa Moore, piano, works by Halle, Lansky, Wolfe, Bresnick, Ligeti, Rzewski, Byron Bay Steinway Series, Byron Community Cultural Centre, May 12

Michael Hannan is a composer, keyboard performer, music researcher and Professor of Contemporary Music at Southern Cross University, Lismore.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg.

© Michael Hannan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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