The summer rains arrived early in Miami on Thursday, unfortunately cutting down audience attendance for Kotaro Fukuma’s Miami International Piano Festival debut. Fukuma’s Homage to Birds and Shimmering Water graciously opened the festival’s Discovery Series at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater, with mostly French music having a connection to birds, water or both.
The Discovery Series consistently introduces lesser-known but impressive pianists to South Florida audiences. Artistic director Giselle Brodsky’s goal, to grant these musicians “free space to give wings to their imagination,” was admirably met with Fukuma’s program, which takes its inspiration from the Japanese ideogram “Shimmering Water.”
Music depicting water is often nonstop tinkling notes, and these were plentiful throughout the night. Intermixed with the trilling of birdcalls, Fukuma’s selections were somewhat homogeneous, although pleasant, and his clean technique and charming expressivity mitigated the sameness to a degree.
The first half was mostly lighter fare, as the slim, elegant Fukuma delivered clear imitative trills and ornaments on Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux, and showed formidable skill and expressiveness in Adolf Shulz-Elver’s Lisztian confection, Concert Arabesques on Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz.
Georges Bizet’s Chants du Rhin showcased Fukuma’s brilliant voicing of melodies, even when doubled in both hands amid ever-running passagework. The sublime pinky melody of “Les confidences” was the best illustration among many in the suite. Also notable were Fukuma’s well-delineated moods in “La Bohémienne,” a spirited, darkly modal dance.
This same melodic sense and clear tone led the audience through twists and turns, Latin-tinged ornaments, thoughtful pauses and a moonlit nightingale’s capricious calls in Enrique Granados’ “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Goyescas.
The second half of the concert raised the bar considerably, immediately evident in Fukuma’s terrifically intense take on Maurice Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” and “Une barque sur l’océan” from Miroirs. His delicate, sad birds and murky, misty accompaniment gave a glimpse into a true artist’s soul, and even coaxed some brightness out of the withholding piano. Sweeping surges, cascading lines and an epic trajectory gave the impression that Fukuma himself was tossed on the waves.
Possessed by the spirit, Fukuma plunged immediately into Claude Debussy’s more playful L’isle joyeuse, more humorous but no less shimmery. His judicious use of pedal differentiated the sparkling repeated motives, constant arpeggios, and mood swings between playful and mysterious, building into a potent climactic section.
Franz Liszt’s heavily demanding Deux Légendes solidified Fukuma’s status as a rising star. Written several years before Shulz-Evler’s Concert Arabesques, Liszt’s absurdly difficult technical requirements serve a far more substantial piece.
In Liszt’s depiction of St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds, Fukuma’s light-as-air, chirping bird calls over a constant pad of running notes soared, before deepening into the stately chorales, flurrying octaves and heavenly hymns of the saint’s sermon.
With “St. Francis de Paule walking on the water,” Fukuma revealed a ferocious side with powerful, ascending counterpoint. His reverent, spiritual reading, by turns stormy and frenetic, and joyfully transcendent, delivered numerous dazzling swells and eddies for a profound, revelatory performance.
Before his tender encore of Leopold Godowsky’s transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, Fukuma noted humorously that, “Everywhere I play this program, it’s 90 percent raining.” The next time he’s in Miami, grab an umbrella and go.