Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo
Montpelier pianist Michael Arnowitt performed in Burlington on Tuesday.
BURLINGTON — For music, 1913 is likely the most important year of the 20th century. Not only was it during one of the most fertile artistic periods in history, it included the century’s seminal music masterpiece.
On Tuesday at the University of Vermont Recital Hall, Montpelier pianist Michael Arnowitt took a student- and musician-studded audience on a fascinating odyssey through a broad spectrum of music of 1913 — culminating with the aforementioned work. This is the program that Arnowitt performed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington last summer.
Tuesday’s program closed with that famed work that was the program’s highlight, Arnowitt’s transcription of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” At the notorious premiere of this groundbreaking ballet, the audience degenerated into fisticuffs — the lovers versus the haters — and the police were brought in. The work, evoking prehistoric rituals for spring and fertility, broke every musical rule with its extravagance, its driving rhythms and its blatant sensuality. It’s a breathtaking work.
Arnowitt took this brilliantly orchestrated work for massive orchestra — actually only “The Adoration of the Earth,” Part 1 — and reduced it to one piano. And, surprisingly, it proved quite effective. It didn’t hurt that Arnowitt’s substantial virtuosity was able to manage this driving power, while at the same time distinguishing a broad palette of colors. His performance was exciting as well as deeply moving.
Much the same could be said for a deeply contrasting work, the opening movement, Allegro agitato, of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat, representing the height of late Romanticism. This demanded a different kind of virtuosity, and Arnowitt responded rhapsodically. (Although this isn’t the music Arnowitt is known for, it would be splendid to hear him play the whole sonata.)
Musical change was happening in America too. Charles Ives’ “The Alcotts” from his Piano Sonata No. 2 employed early American themes in a contemporary style. Leo Ornstein’s graphic “Suicide in an Airplane” mixed styles of Liszt and Stravinsky, and perhaps Philip Glass, in a fascinating way.
Humor was represented by the inimitable Frenchman Erik Satie, who poked fun not only with his titles but with his music. Still, his “Of the Edriophthalma” from his “Embryons dessechés (Dried Embryos)” paraphrased Chopin’s famous “Funeral March” imaginatively and beautifully. This is what improvisation can be.
Tuesday’s program opened with the familiar. Yet Debussy’s Impressionism challenged 1913’s audiences with its unique flavor that involved constantly fluctuating rhythms, harmonies and tonal colors. Arnowitt proved a master, mixing blurs with distinct passages to bring out the beauty of Nos. 1, 4 and 8 of the composer’s Preludes, Book II.
Arnowitt interspersed these pieces with brief commentary that tied the disparate music into the rapidly changing world of 1913. It was at once a challenging and most rewarding evening.
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