So what is a Piano Extravaganza? At this year’s Southeastern Piano Festival — occupying various spaces around town through June 22 — it was a visual extravaganza, with five nine-foot Steinways on the Koger Center stage Sunday afternoon.
It was certainly a musical extravaganza, including several works the audience is unlikely to ever hear again in live performance. It was also a talent extravaganza, including four distinguished University of South Carolina piano faculty members and five great younger guests, whose performances were consistently fine. Add one orchestra, the S.C. Philharmonic (in the final performance of its season), one conductor, Morihiko Nakahara, and voila — an evening that lived up to its ambitious name.
The tiny — not so extravagant — orchestra opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Impressario. Mushy articulation at first gave way to cleaner, more spirited playing. Being forced down the back half of the stage with its poor resonance didn’t help clarity.
But the first three piano works were genuine musical extravaganzas, beginning with Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy — arranged by Greg Anderson and played in feisty style by Susan Zhang and Zachary Hughes, SEPF alumni. Everybody knows Carmen, but this is a Fantasy, and Anderson takes it a step beyond a straightforward arrangement — maybe several steps beyond — and nobody does this better than he.
USC faculty pianists Phillip Bush and Joseph Rackers got winds, percussion and three enigmatic singers involved in John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music. It’s in three sections, the first two without pause, rather delicate, even serene.
Not so the final section called “On the Dominant Divide;” Adams calls on the “barest chord progression,” known to composers as I-V-I — or tonic, dominant, tonic. He has has written extensively on this piece, explaining that it is “a dream image… while driving down Interstate 5,” meeting two black stretch limousines that “transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos” and “a sonic blur of 20 or more pianos playing Chopin … Rachmaninoff … the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.” Though exceedingly well played by all, the performance could have taken more advantage of the piece's bold repetitious patterns and long stretches of soft-to-loud, loud-to-soft tension and release.
Next came one of the performances the audience was waiting for: All five piano benches occupied — Rackers, Busch, and Zhang, plus additional USC piano faculty members Charles Fugo and Marina Lomazov, all playing at once. The music was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Dance Macabre, arranged into what Anderson calls a Hootenanny for Five Pianos. A most impressive hootenanny it was, played powerfully and precisely, more fun than frightening.
Chopin appropriately appeared on the program, as Micah McLaurin, from Charleston, played the gorgeously lethargic slow movement of the composer’s 2nd Concerto with Chopin-esque maturity and confidence.
Mostly Mozart showed up next in Papageno!: Fantasy on Arias from The Magic Flute, another fantasy arrangement by the talented Anderson, played excitedly by Rieko Tsuchida and Dong Yeon Kim, nicely capturing both the humor and despondence of Mozart’s lovable bird-catcher.
The Philharmonic contributed a lackluster Habanera by Emmanuel Chabrier before the other performance the audience was eagerly awaiting: The festival’s artistic director, Marina Lomazov, joined the Philharmonic, bringing the Extravaganza to a vibrant close with Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Missing in this youthful work is that bitter irony of Prokofiev’s later years, but not the energy and bold rhythmic drive. Lomazov was fabulous. She played with force without forgoing accuracy, delivering an unerring performance — despite the power and strength required to bring this music to life.
It was a perfect exclamation point, with just enough musical whimsies and tempers — both playful and acerbic — to complement those same qualities, which earlier had been such a vital part of this ingenious program.