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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Christopher Taylor Piano Recital: Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York City, December 3, 2004 (BH)

Charles Ives: Three Studies - No. 20: Even Durations – Unevenly Divided (1908); No. 21: Some South-Paw Pitching (c. 1914); No. 22: Andante maestoso – Piu mosso (1909)
Conlon Nancarrow: Prelude and Blues (1935); Sonatina (1941)
Béla Bartók: Sonata (1926)
John Adams: American Berserk (2001)

Conlon Nancarrow: Tango? (1983); Three Canons for Ursula (1988) - Canon A: 5/7, Canon B: 6/9/10/15, Canon C: 2/3; Three Two-Part Studies for Piano (early 1940s)
Albert Ammons: Boogie Woogie Stomp (1939)
Nick LaRocca: Tiger Rag (1917, arr. Art Tatum c. 1933)


In the lobby after this exhilaratingly over-the-top-in-difficulty recital, a smiling, nonchalant Christopher Taylor demonstrated one of his tricks for learning some of the diabolically complex rhythms in the Nancarrow pieces. Fishing out his hand-held electronic organizer from a pocket, he tapped the screen to reveal a menu of dozens of rhythmic patterns, organized into a sort of electronic metronome encyclopedia. Still a bit dazed from Taylor’s playing, I watched him select the rhythm used in the first of Nancarrow’s Three Canons for Ursula (written for Ursula Oppens), which is actually a tempo canon for two voices, synchronized in a five-against-seven ratio. (When the second canon begins, it is slightly faster, completing seven notes in the time required for the first part to complete five, resulting in what Mr. Taylor describes as “an unusual blippy texture.”) Onscreen, the “five-vs. -seven” rhythm was delineated by small graphics dutifully trotting across as requested, with tiny beeps making the disparate metres somewhat comprehensible.

It is impossible to overstate the difficulty of these works. A genuine American master, and a slightly eccentric one, Nancarrow came to fame with his studies for player piano, which display an almost numbing catalogue of rhythmic complexity. Why use a player piano? Try comprehending Study No. 22: Canon 1%/1.5%/2.25%, in which one voice speeds up at 1% per note, another at 1.5%, and the third at 2.25%, or Study No. 48, with a rhythmic ratio of 60:61 – no, sixty-to-sixty-one is not a misprint – and its third and final movement consisting of the first two played together. Later in life, when his solitude was overturned as the world discovered his talent, he began writing works for “regular” human pianists as well as chamber ensembles, but even these pieces have rhythmic challenges that most people would consider impossible to meet.

So back to those Canons. The ratios Nancarrow chose produce oddly limping, halting rhythms – at once strangely elegant and a bit loopy. Seeing Mr. Taylor’s head nodding back and forth as he played the second Canon with four voices in a 6/9/10/15 ratio, I realized that he had genuinely internalized these rhythmic relationships, as difficult as it was to believe. The droll Tango? has a similar laconic quality, in contrast to the hyperactive sparseness of the Two-Part Studies. These are clearly patterned after Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, but here too, Nancarrow experiments with rhythmic patterns that outdo each other in complexity. The remaining works were even more furiously virtuosic, especially the early Sonatina, whose second movement pits a 5/8 rhythm against 6/8, and the finale races off with a blisteringly complex fugue.

In between all this carefully organized mayhem came the excellent American Berserk, with yet more rhythmic complications by John Adams, his esthetic clearly influenced by Nancarrow’s, and a very fine performance of the Bartók Sonata, fusing elegance and brutality. Mr. Taylor said he had not performed the latter in close to twenty years, a state of affairs that I hope he will consider revising, given his fiercely commanding reading. If there might be any suggestion made to Mr. Taylor, it would only be that the Bartók seemed almost a bit overwhelmed by some of the virtuosic voices surrounding it. As stimulating as the entire program was, it might have benefited from just a small oasis of calm, something completely tranquil to prepare one’s ear for the next blizzard of notes, not to mention the fireworks at the end of the program.

Before the Nancarrow came Ives, whose still-dauntingly complex music challenges both performers and listeners. The fact that Mr. Taylor started his program with these uncompromisingly thorny works says volumes about his ability, not to mention his instincts: “No warming up here, thank you – let’s just get right to it.” And getting right to it, in this case, meant showing that despite their pages of virtuoso demands, these works can be made understandable by an artist who works at clarifying them. And just for the record, Taylor often deploys appealingly theatrical gestures. Almost to the end of Some South-Paw Pitching, he paused for a split-second to cock his head up to one side, as if asking the Universe, So what should come next? – and the answer, a surprising major chord, landed like a gentle joke.

The evening ended with two works that made Mr. Taylor really sweat, hard as that might be to believe: Albert Ammons’ Boogie Woogie Stomp, a beefy ramble transporting us to what sounded like some overheated swing-dance parlor in St. Louis, and the final and quite incredible Tiger Rag by Nick LaRocca, arranged by American jazz master Art Tatum. This giddy piece could have been a cartoon soundtrack, and Taylor only increased the impact by playing it blindingly fast. To quote Mr. Taylor’s lucid notes once again, “…the insane speed of Nancarrow’s player-piano music…finds a precedent in Tatum’s superhumanly nimble fingers.” But this superb recital was ultimately satisfying not only for the ability of Mr. Taylor, but for his program ideas, and the relationships between the works crisscrossing with a similar overwhelming velocity.

Bruce Hodges



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