Monday, September 20, 2010

Piano Optophonique Music and Image

I've heard about this performance when I had been dropping by the UP College of Music's Abelardo Hall Auditorium for their Sounds of August series. This performance organized by the Manila Composers' Lab and Goethe-Institut was dubbed as Piano Optophonique Music and Image and initially I had no idea what to expect from this performance.

Then it was announced that works by Oliver Schneller would be performed. I am not really familiar with who he is and let alone his works so I'm not sure what kind of music he had in store. And the programme said that the pieces were for video projection, real time electronics and virtual instruments aside from the piano which would be played by his wife Heather O'Donnell. I had no clue how the video, electronics and virtual instrument would contribute to the pieces but it made me curious to see this performance. Also included were works by familiar composers John Adams and Charles Ives which made the night more interesting because of the selection of the works to be played.

And it was indeed very interesting to see this performance. Not only were the works not the usual classical repertoire but the setup was also unusual as well. The video wall was expected already but the speakers set up wasn't. And the speakers played a major role since the sound emanating from the speakers would shift from the left to the right and it had an effect on the overall performance.

The music in itself takes a lot of getting used to. I admit that I wasn't able to get or hear them all. I would understand if some people were put off by this kind of performance especially if they were expecting the usual piece with a melody that could be easily recalled. The minimalist piece China Gates by John Adams was the only piece played that could be easily appreciated by a casual listener but the others require more than just casual listening.

So I was surprised that the Charles Ives piece called Three Quarter Tone Pieces was able to get through me. This piece is originally for two pianos but there was only one piano and pianist, so the other piano part was pre-recorded and it was on a different pitch, specifically a quarter tone off the pitch. It sounded really dissonant at first but somehow, it added to the appeal, mystique and enchantment of the piece. It's not for everyone and I would normally be not drawn to it but hearing it gave me shivers and goosebumps.

Since I mentioned the video wall, in some pieces, some abstract images were seen that were generated by a computer and if I'm not mistaken, the images formed took their cues from the sound of the piano picked up by the microphone. The piano played unusual notes to start with that had no discernible melody and it was difficult to see if the piece had any structure or form to it. So the images that accompanied it were thematically the same which was very abstract. And I admit that I found it hard to understand if I indeed understood anything at all.

But the other piece which had a video accompanying it was a bit easier to understand. The music was the usual difficult to understand but the video was a surprising contrast since it was about some guy who had thought up of some architectural design. So it was interesting to hear something without any form being accompanied by a video that was about a field very much into geometric forms and structure.

Overall, this night was an eye and ear opener since I've never experienced something like this before. I am just glad that I've listened to and liked some pieces by George Crumb which is somewhat in the same vein of some of the pieces performed so I wasn't entirely shocked as I could be.

And when I found out that O' Donnell would be performing a few days later at the Podium, I got a bit excited and fearful. I got fearful at first since I knew that the mall crowd would not appreciate the programme that they performed at UP. And then Schneller, during our brief chat after the show, told me that O' Donnell would be performing pieces by Schumann, Ravel, Chopin Gershwin and would be repeating the Adams piece, I knew that I had to drop by at the Podium to see her perform.

And so I did manage to see her perform once again and this time, it was the usual pieces from the usual composers that I am familiar with that she played. She first played Robert Schumann's Selections from Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6 and then Maurice Ravel's Sonatine.

The next piece she played was a favorite: Frederic Chopin's Berceuse in D Flat Major, Op. 57 followed by John Adams China Gates which she also performed at UP. To end the short set, she played George Gershwin's Three Preludes.

Unfortunately, piano performances do not work well at all at a mall like the Podium. Most of the pieces O'Donnell played had many pianissimo parts and it was distracting to hear a young girl shrieking in the background while a Berceuse (basically a lullabye) was being played. And again, it was too short but quite understandly so since they were supposed to play the same programme that they did at UP but it wasn't possible due to the acoustics of the venue and it was not possible to dim the lights as well.

But O'Donnell's short set impressed me since it showcased her versatility since she was able to play not only modern pieces but pieces from the standard classical repertoire. Schneller and O'Donnell are a married couple and they made this brief detour to Manila from Shanghai for sentimental reasons. It turned out that Schneller spent some years in here while he was still studying in his younger years. And that he wanted to come back so he made things work out for him.


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