Vicky Chow: Wizard of the Prepared Piano

To outsiders, the avant-garde music community may appear to be a cabal or an odd after school club gone to seed, but the ties that bind these composers and performers are actually quite benign. As the pianist and contemporary music wizard Vicky Chow introduced her first piece “Vicki-y” on Thursday’s (October 29) Fresh Sound recital, the interconnections immediately fell into place.

Vicky Chow (photo courtesy of the performer)

Vicky Chow (photo courtesy of the performer)

East coast composer Andy Akiho, one of the featured composers and performers of the 2012 Carlsbad Music Festival, wrote his flashy, demanding piano solo “Vicki-y” for both Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray, the Los Angeles based avant-garde pianist who gave a recital on the 2015 Carlsbad Music Festival.

I understand that these two pianists have never actually met, but their reputations have generously preceded them, and Akiho has crafted an alternately shimmering and rattling 20-minute sonic tapestry for prepared and amplified piano that should only be undertaken by keyboard players with the skill and stamina of Ray and Chow.

In “Vicki-y,” Chow pulled from her much-altered Baldwin grand piano biting percussive fusillades and misty, gong-like drones that might be compared to a Javanese gamelan on acid. But then, Akiho is an accomplished steel pan player, so bright metallic sonorities are his calling card as a performer, and in this piano work he was sage enough not to dwell on any one sound effect too long. Full of surprising contrasts and unexpected turns, “Vicki-y” is an edgy piece I would eagerly hear again.

In the publicity for this recital, Fresh Sound director Bonnie Wright announced that Chow would play a solo piano arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Chow decided to play only Part I of the great ballet, and, although her technical mastery of Part I was indeed spellbinding, it was highly disappointing to end in the middle of that iconic work.

In the summer of 2014, I heard the American concert organist Stephen Tharp play his own transcription of the entire “Rite of Spring” as the second half of a two-hour recital on one of Boston’s greatest pipe organs. Tharp’s brilliant traversal of the entire “Rite” was a revelation, uncovering themes and counterpoint that are often lost in mighty orchestral performances. The sonic force of the instrument combined with Tharp’s acutely analysed interpretation gave me food for thought many weeks after that performance. Chow offered a few insights, but they were clouded with disappointment.

On Vicki Ray’s Carlsbad Festival recital she played Steve Reich’s “Piano Counterpoint” using Chow’s recorded source of the other five pianos that Reich originally scored in “Piano Counterpoint.” No doubt the composer is happy for solo pianists to program his composition in this more practical format. Vicky Chow closed her recital with her take on Reich’s “Piano Counterpoint,” using her own recorded source for the other pianos, of course. She gave Reich’s festive, Mardi Gras minimalism a hearty workout, although given the calisthenic nature of the piece, it was hard to detect her personal stamp on “Piano Counterpoint.”

[themify_box style=”shadow” ]This Fresh Sound program was given October 29, 2015, at dizzy’s in Pacific Beach. The next program in the series will feature woodwind master Vasko Dukovski on November 21, 2015, at Bread and Salt in Barrio Logan.[/themify_box]

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