(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
There’s a magic about late-career Beethoven — sections of pieces that are beguiling, perhaps a little mystical. And they tend to be tricky to pin down. That’s the joy really, of marveling at the creation of something so long ago that can still sound so present and fresh.
At First Unitarian Church on Saturday, Austin Chamber Music Center’s January program featured artistic director Michelle Schumann on solo piano, performing some very new-sounding Beethoven and the premiere of a piece that’s truly brand new, by Austin composer Graham Reynolds.
The Beethoven — "Sonata for Piano in E Major, Op. 109" — begins in another world. Schumann absolutely conjured magic out of the piano in its opening minutes.
Then the work shifts tone rather abruptly. If one reads into the music too far, it’s Beethoven grumbling at us, bringing us down from a brief fantasy land and into the land of waltzes, marches, of themes and variations. Of course these are no ordinary themes and variations — the theme is quite sweet, and some intervals in the third movement feel practically jazzy.
Reynolds’ work for piano and electronics is called "In the Face of Trouble," a commission for Schumann that explores timbre through digital effects, along with some improvisation.
It begins with icy sounds, bouncing in a crystalline reverb. Recalling the work of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The piece then blossomed into a broader soundscape, eventually bouncing Schumann’s live piano off a see-saw sample that was triggered and looped.
The second section worked with a pulse you could bounce to — a welcome surprise in a piece meant to channel Beethoven’s piano sonata. (Later there was indeed a series of long, sustained chords that echoed Beethoven nicely.) Some sections were more persuasive than others; a few felt telegraphed. There was plenty of color, which may have benefitted from a few more surprises and a bit more negative space. But this piece is straddling the space between alt-classical and pop.
There’s another technology here that deserves mention: the lighting design by Natalie George. First Unitarian is a handsome mid-century hall, but its house lights were probably not designed with art shows in mind. What a few new hues can do. A predominant purple cast a moody glow on the stage, with Schumann’s shadow echoing behind her, a la Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It was utterly transporting.
This was smart pairing from Austin Chamber Music Center, with Schumann playing forcefully, but always with grace.