The Not-Quite-Ready for Primetime Virtuoso
Leaving the comfort of my living room and the allure of the NFL playoffs on a glorious San Diego winter afternoon, I ventured out to hear Ji, the young, one-named Korean Wunderkind at the Scripps Research Institute concert hall. He was presented by La Jolla Music Society on their Discovery Series. The drive was short, the hall delightful, the program promising and the piano excellent, but I think that perhaps I should have stayed at home and watched football.
Ji is a confident, twenty-something young man with a big, New York piano technique (as befits every Juilliard graduate that I’ve ever heard), and he boldly took on an enormous program. The man has a huge heart: according to the pre-concert introduction, Ji spent the last few days visiting San Diego public schools and the San Diego Youth Symphony and working with their students. He apparently has been involved with numerous “Stop & Listen” outdoor “guerrilla” performances, which, as far as I can tell, are impromptu and unannounced public performances in unexpected places. Admirable. Seemingly, he is very committed to bringing classical music to the masses, so, bravo!
Sunday’s program began promisingly with Three Chorale Preludes of J.S. Bach as arranged by Busoni. These are very tricky pieces to play, in spite of their disarmingly simple melodies. In the opening prelude, from the cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645), one was immediately struck by Ji’s sound. Although physicists may deny it, each individual pianist has a different tone, and Ji’s timbre can only be characterized as bright. This sound worked in his favor for the opening pieces because he was able to distinguish, to a large extent, their complex polyphony. The final prelude, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mien (BWV 734) is a virtuoso display, favored in past generations by, among others, Vladimir Horowitz. Ji’s digital dexterity left no doubt of his technical prowess.
Following the Bach, a program change was announced from the stage. Unfortunately, Ji was not given a microphone and so, his comments were mostly incomprehensible. I found out later that he announced that the previously scheduled Olivier Messiaen piece would be replaced with a work by the contemporary German composer, Matthias Pintscher. In addition to being a composer of high repute, Pintscher is also the Music Director of L’Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. The work entitled “Now 1” is of very recent vintage. Ji chose to play the work from the score. I cannot comment very meaningfully on the music, never having heard it nor having access to the score. One can only hope that Ji was being true to Pintscher’s score. To be sure, the work’s sense of an atmospheric impressionism is redolent of other contemporary French pieces and reminds one of works by Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey and Kaija Saariaho. One can only hope that Ji will continue to add more meaningful contemporary pieces such as this one to his recital repertory.
Closing the first half of the program, the soloist chose Mendelssohn’s “Variations sérieuses” in D minor, Op. 54. The work was well represented but served to point out some of the serious problems in Ji’s playing. The facile nature of Mendelssohn’s work was again met with Ji’s remarkable ability to execute complex filigree and yet, he neglected to express any sense of majesty or profundity.
These omissions were deadly in the second half of the program where the young man heroically chose to attempt the entire “Aria with Thirty Variations” BWV 988 (Goldberg Variations) of J.S. Bach. Educated listeners have been brought up with this monumental and iconic piece, so when a young virtuoso decides it’s his turn to present the work in his interpretation, he better be loaded for bear. Ji was not up to the task.
Serious issues were brought into relief by the pianist’s choice not to play from memory. For a professional, classical pianist in a formal recital such as Sunday’s, playing by heart is de rigeur for everything except very recently composed works. The convention is not without merit: although the Goldberg Variations appear as a series of short, individual variations, Bach’s genius created a work of unity that must be performed as a gestalt, logically and inevitably unfolding. Ji’s incessant page turns consistently broke the arc of the piece, rendering an aria and thirty little pieces concluding with the opening aria as a coda. The pieces all seemed only tangentially related to one another since with each page turn, any sense of compositional continuity was destroyed. Although the man has a formidable technique, if his artistic aim is achieve the stellar level of his remarkable predecessors such as Gould, Richter, Schiff, Pollini, Barenboim, etc., he will need to learn to create majesty and grandeur as well as how to establish a virtually spiritual musical atmosphere.
In the final analysis, I felt disrespected as a listener by his decision to play this monumental piece without adequate preparation. Every time Ji turned the page, it was as if I heard his voice loudly exclaiming in my head, “I AM NOT READY TO PLAY THIS PIECE YET!!!!!” So, I ask, perhaps rhetorically, why program it? With his obvious penchant for music of a more recent vintage, I for one, would have been much happier hearing something less often encountered such as, perhaps, a Prokofiev, Copland or even Stravinsky sonata. That would have been like a breath of fresh air on that crisp, San Diego winter afternoon.