A solo piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring sounds like an unpromising enterprise. How can you present one of the world’s most intensely colorful works of symphonic music without oboes and trumpets, without violins, without that opening bassoon?
Canadian-born pianist Jon Kimura Parker worked hard to pull it off at his recital Thursday night at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. He clearly felt an affinity for the music, which he had arranged himself from the orchestral score, working up big, rhythmically complex climaxes that displayed his mastery of the piano and deploying a wide range of tone colors, from soft and mysterious to abrupt and brutal.
Yet the absence of orchestration showed just how essential it is. Stravinsky used the varied instruments of the orchestra in an almost tactile way, elevating the significance of tone and texture to the level that Brahms or Beethoven might have given to melody, musical development and harmony. Without the orchestral instruments to contrast with each other, to give life and meaning to repetitive motifs, too much of the work sounded flat and dull. The famous hammer blows in the strings early in the work came off as too civilized, more delicate than primitive, and throughout there was just a lack of shape and intensity, despite Parker’s best efforts and clear commitment to the work.
The performance took place at the Broward Center’s smaller hall, the 590-seat Amaturo Theater. Yet for this final season event in the Broward Center's classical series, the hall was still less than half full. Perhaps this sort of esoteric program is too hard a sell in Fort Lauderdale. Or maybe the issue is with the marketing approach or a combination of various factors. The Broward Center's schedule for next season is much more conservative and crossover, offering a couple of pops programs and mainstream favorites such as violinists Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell.
The recital opened with Rachmaninoff’s Preludes in E Major, G Major and B-flat Major, music that showed the piano off at its best, as opposed the Stravinsky, which just revealed its limitations. After a rousing, rumbling performance of the E Major Prelude, he gave an autumnal, inward looking one of the G Major, with a seamless melodic line in his right hand. The virtuosity demanded by the B-flat Major Prelude barely seemed to affect him, as he focused on giving a powerful account of the melody in the bass and tossed off a complex accompaniment in the treble.
After intermission came Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, a work that produced Parker’s best performance of the evening. He brought sturdy rhythmic clarity to the virtuoso passages that frame Schubert’s melodies, to which he brought a delicate touch and sure sense of phrasing. If occasionally his right hand whiffed over some of the fast virtuoso stuff with too much lightness and not enough clarity, there was an ease to his performance that kept the focus on the music, not its difficulty.
After the brief lyric interlude of Grieg’s Notturno, Parker turned to the final work of the program, the Wizard of Oz Fantasy by William Hirtz, one of the pianist’s friends. Here was a diverting if featherlight display piece, in which the familiar themes of the musical were surrounded by intricate piano embroideries. With its formidable technical demands and weird harmonic takes on Harold Arlen’s classic songs, the work sounded like a collaboration of Franz Liszt and Charles Ives, brought off again with Parker’s impressive skill at the keyboard.
As an encore, he performed Scott Joplin’s Solace, giving a wistful, sensitive performance that provided a nice contrast to the keyboard fireworks that dominated the evening.