Exploration, defiance, and variety defined pianist Eunmi Ko’s recital on Sunday night at the Timucua White House. A graduate from the Eastman School of Music, Ko is a supremely agile and versatile pianist. The extremely interesting program was loosely connected by a theme of dance, and it fearlessly juxtaposed contemporary music and exciting pieces from the classical repertoire.
A performance of anything by Morton Feldman, a major 20th century composer of indeterminate music, is itself a curiosity; Ko’s rendition of Three Dances, from 1950, redefined the role of the pianist as a performance artist. Choreographed by Jeanne Travers, Three Dances seemed to render explicit the introspection and self-examination of the piano player as she works through the dissonant and disjointed score. How? During the several short pauses of the piece, Ko responded to the notes with a visual interpretation of the music’s implicit meaning. At the beginning, she faced the audience with eyes wide open, as if to defy her spectators. She also cocooned into her seat and embraced herself as she bowed down her head. By exploring with noises – she rubbed the floor with her shoe soles and blew into the piano – Ko added an additional layer of extended techniques to the intriguing choreography.
While the first dance consists of a two-note motif in the bass register, the third has the pianist pull out a drumstick and bang on a floor tom with an empty gin bottle lying on top of it, as the left hand plays a repetitive chord throughout. Three Dances is a very intriguing performance piece, and Ko’s take on it succeeded by captivating the audience with alternating episodes of befuddlement, discomfort, and wonder. That’s what memorable performances of avant-garde music often do.
The second of Granados’ Three Spanish Dances was especially poignant; Ko infused it with yearning and subtly emphasized the melancholy repeating bass figure. Curiously, Ko did not pause before the end of the Feldman and the first dance; the abrupt onset of Granados’ tonality was pleasantly intrusive, almost impertinent.
The highlight of the program was Chrissy Seunghee Lee’s Parakeet Dancing (see embedded video above). The Korean composer imbues her 2014 piece with a thoroughly engaging sense of harmony, in which the skittishness of the spread-out melodies results in a deceptive tonal center. Staccato notes in the bass are countered by dissonant scurries high in the upper register. As the piece progresses and the pieces begin to coalesce, flighty eruptions burst out, yet carefully controlled by the pianist. About halfway through the piece, Ko reached into the piano to pluck strings from each end; the harpsichord-like ghostly echo that this produced was striking, especially as it followed the earlier bursts and flurries.
The more well-known pieces were D’un cahier d’esquisses and L’isle joyeuse, both by Debussy, and Ballade No. 1, by Chopin. Ko’s performance of Debussy featured smart work on the damper pedal, creating islands of sound. Her swift finger work as she crossed her left hand over to the high end of the keyboard to caress the high notes resulted in a pleasant interpretation, with an overall air of freshness. For L’isle joyeuse, Ko employed a more nuanced use of dynamics than in the first Debussy selection. Likewise, she handled very well the tempo wavering on the Chopin, building up a sense of drama and emotion. The downside, however, was the tendency of the pianist to apply a rough attack – a bit too intense for Chopin.
The second contemporary selection was John Liberatore’s She rose, and let me in: Scottish Variations and Fugue. A collection of several episodes, the piece works as a showpiece for the pianist. The first movement opens at a breakneck pace, and is quickly offset by a quieter reimagining of the original theme. The most exciting and technically demanding variations were the contrapuntal sections. Ko handled the melodic overlap with precision. Although the piece presents much variety and inventive transformations of the main melody – demanding high versatility from the performer – ultimately the short episodes don’t connect with emotional resonant.
With a smart, innovative, and sensible taste for programming, Eunmi Ko is an artist to keep on the radar.
- To visit Eunmi Ko’s website, click here.
- To visit the website of the Timucua Arts Foundation and learn about upcoming performances, click here.
- To watch a performance of Morton Feldman’s Three Dances, click here.
- To watch a performance of John Liberatore’s She rose, and let me in, click here.