CityArts - Thursday, August 1, 2013 - Written by Jay Nordlinger

Key Krazy: Notes from a Piano Extravaganza

Jerome Rose presides over the annual piano extravaganza at Mannes College. More formally, this extravaganza is the International Keyboard Institute & Festival, or IKIF. Rose is its founder and director. IKIF takes place in the second half of July. And, every year, Rose gives the opening recital.

This year, he played four sonatas of Beethoven, all of them having nicknames: not “Moonlight,” “Pastoral,” “Tempest,” and “Hammerklavier,” but “Pathétique,” “Waldstein,” “Les Adieux,” and “Appassionata.” All 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas are special, really, but those with nicknames are thought to be extra-special. This is not entirely without reason.

Rose plays with utter confidence, knowing what he wants to do, and going ahead and doing it. He also plays with due emotion. Recently, a musician friend of mine said to me, “My father says that music ought to be played with feeling. We don’t use the word ‘feeling’ much. We’re a little afraid of it, I think. Or we may look down on it. But my father’s right, you know.” Yes, he is.

Moreover, Rose plays with a big, fat, virile sound. You may not get Mitsuko Uchida-like delicacy from him. But the bigger playing has its compensations. When this pianist’s fingers stumble, he simply plows ahead, heedless, pursuing his musical purpose. Daniel Barenboim has this quality as well. Rose is a big-picture man, and if some of the details fall by the way, so be it.

On the stage at Mannes, he was especially good in Beethoven’s slow movements. The one from the “Pathétique” was blessedly unlagging, a proper Beethoven song. And the one from the “Waldstein” was superbly lush and full. The sonata ended with a charge, provoking a roar from the audience.

IKIF is celebrating its 15th year, a veritable institution here in New York. It is appreciated, and attended, by pianists and piano cognoscenti all over town, and from out of town. There is nothing else like it. Students get taught. Professionals give recitals. And the vast piano repertory is explored. True, Rose played four canonical sonatas. But IKIF typically gives you music from way off the beaten path.

Take the recital by Steven Mayer, who, like Rose, is an American. He began with a piece by Thalberg—Sigismond Thalberg, a piano virtuoso born near Geneva in 1812. This was his Fantasy on Themes from Rossini’s Mosè. Mayer continued with a piece by a famous and great composer: Schumann. But the piece was a relative rarity, Schumann’s Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 11.

In my judgment, we would never hear this piece at all if it were not by a great composer. If it were by, say, a Robert Schumacher, rather than Robert Schumann, it would be in the dustbin, and understandably so.

The second half of Mayer’s program was all-American—beginning with Silver Spring, by William Mason, whose dates are 1829 to 1908. This is not an immortal piece (though it is still being played in 2013, isn’t it?). But I’m glad to have heard it. And where else could you, besides IKIF?

Mayer then played two pieces of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first of them being his Pasquinade, a purely American piece, snappy and delightful. The second piece is much different: The Last Hope, ethereally beautiful. Mayer played it just this way. Incidentally, someone made Gottschalk’s melody into a hymn: “Day by day the manna fell . . .”

Speaking of hymns, Mayer then played the third movement of Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, which incorporates a hymn we know as “Missionary Chant.” Mayer played this music with maturity.

And he ended his printed program with “solos”—treatments, arrangements, versions, improvisations, call them what you will—by Art Tatum, the jazz great. The first of these was one of his most famous: Humoresque. What Tatum did with Dvorak’s ditty, Dvorak would love, I think. Did Mayer play the Tatum pieces with the limpidity and charm of the master himself? That is an unfair question. It’s enough that Mayer pays homage, and pays it well.

He gave the audience an encore: It was, if I understand correctly, a Fats Waller treatment of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” otherwise known as “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” The piano repertory is wide and wonderful, and Jerome Rose’s festival reminds a person of that fact.

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