Every performer has a “comfort zone.” This is some subset of the overall repertoire for which mastering execution comes more easily. It may consist of specific compositions, one or more particular composers, or even works associated with a particular historical period. Preparing a program then amounts to making decisions of when to stay in that comfort zone and when to venture out to domains in which preparation is likely to involve far more effort.
Today at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the first Noontime Concerts™ recital of 2016, it was unclear whether any of the works pianist Andrew Yang had selected were in his comfort zone. Indeed, it was not at all clear that, through his training experience, he had established such a comfort zone. His selections certainly took in a wide variety of options. He began with a relatively austere but still showy piano sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 310 in A minor). He then advanced to the late nineteenth century with the first two of the three intermezzos in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 117 collection of three. Finally, he concluded with the first version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) piano sonata in B-flat minor, published in 1913 but with an aesthetic stance that had not advanced very far beyond Brahms.
The problem may be that all three of these selections suffered from a common weakness. Whether he was dealing with the disciplined formalism of the eighteenth century or the flexing of past rigidities as the nineteenth century drew to a close, Yang’s execution never offered a clear sense that he grasped either the basic pulse behind the music he was playing or the perturbations in that pulse out of which rhythm arises, not to mention the perturbations of rhythm through which a performance can be parsed into phrases. At best Yang’s was a performance that was “all notes” with little regard for the structures emerging from those notes.
To be fair he may have been having trouble with adverse conditions. All too often the cold on the outside of Old Saint Mary’s easily become the cold on the inside. Such cold can easily take its toll on dexterity, whether it involves pressing the keys of a piano or fingering a violin. More seasoned performers often come with a bag of tricks in the hope that at least one of them will help get beyond such difficulties. Yang never gave the impression of being so equipped. Perhaps he has been consistently fortunate enough to play under more conducive conditions at every recital. If that is the case, then today may have been a difficult reality check for him to confront, worse than having Brahms’ name misspelled on the poster for his concert.