of piano music by Brahms and Chopin in a fine old midcity
church has an Edith Wharton-ish aspect to it, and this program
could—and, for all we know, might—have taken place here a
hundred years ago.
like this has occurred here in recent memory. Johnstown has
no major concert hall—the Glove, in neighboring Gloversville,
is closest—but the First Presbyterian Church offered an acoustically
pleasing sanctuary. and a small but well-appointed Steinway
was brought in for the occasion.
pianist Juana Zayas forged a career in America that has put
her in the classical music world’s small spotlight only intermittently,
but when she performs (and records), it’s an event worth celebrating.
a demanding program that celebrated the instrument’s Romantic-era
heyday, with Brahms and Chopin providing the bulk of the works
she chose. And I can’t imagine a piece announcing itself more
Brahmsianly than that composer’s Rhapsody No. 1 in B-minor.
It opens with a characteristic theme that wanders for a bit
before settling into a passage with a unique sense of majesty
and introspection, and just when you think you’re about to
stride off in autumnal triumph, it eases into a soft, haunting
section with just as much motion as the beginning but in a
far more cantabile manner. The piece shimmers between
those modalities even as it plays with harmonic modes, with
a major key often threatening to break through its minor-ness.
a lot of work for the pianist for ten busy minutes, and Zayas
demonstrated a special skill that goes beyond the merely technical:
an understanding of the architecture of a work like this,
and the ability to use that understanding to sculpt the components
into an effective whole. We didn’t just shift from loud to
soft, introspective to triumphant—we were taken on a journey
that left us more fulfilled at its end.
of that journey is easier to follow in Brahms’ Variations
and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. This nearly half-hour
piece starts with a merry theme from Handel’s first harpsichord
suite and winds through 25 variations in all shapes and sizes
before launching the monumental fugue. Always obsessed with
keeping up with Beethoven’s high standards, Brahms outdid
himself here, and Zayas brought the first half of the program
to an impressive close. My only quarrel with her interpretation—and
it was a trait I noted in a couple of the works that followed—was
a tendency to pull back on the big endings, unexpectedly softening
four impromptus opened the second half, works that, despite
the improvisatory suggestion of the titles, are deftly structured
three-part works, typically with a sparkling fountain of virtuosity
framing a mellow middle. Piano music doesn’t get much more
romantic, in the free-flowing sense, than this, but Zayas
resisted the common temptation to over-interpret, keeping
her use of rubato all the more effective. Again, it’s
her keen sense of architecture that made the pieces so compelling.
in C-sharp Minor (incorrectly identified on the program)
is the piece that gave us the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,”
and I’m sure I had the assistance of everyone in the audience
in mentally singing along to the piece. And the Polonaise-Fantasie
in A-flat Major closed the Chopin set with a more ambitious
set of contrasts, almost a miniature sonata in its breadth.
closed the concert with Liszt’s breathtaking arrangement of
the waltz from Gounod’s Faust, a familiar tune that
probably would like the pianist to bring four hands to the
keyboard but settles for two extremely deft ones. The audience
was on its feet before the last chord died out, and Zayas
obliged by encoring with a Schumann song, the gentle “Widmung,”
its flavor preserved in another Liszt arrangement.
such concerts are planned for the Johnstown area, which would
make this a venue worth the small journey.