by Jeannette Fang
Overlooking the stunning cliffs of Vico Equense with the sea below, the audience waited expectantly as the iridescent blue and crystal chandeliers dimmed. For a few moments before the music began, we felt like royalty in the magnificent surroundings of Castello Giusso.
The “tradition” portion of the evening consisted of Schubert’s piano music, beginning with his Drei Klavierstucke D946, performed by James Giles. He strode out calmly, the picture of casual elegance in his simple black attire. He launched right into the Allegro assai, playing with fluidity, poise, and a velvet tone. Unburdened by mannerisms, Giles approached the Schubert with a naturalness that seemed to carry the music as if on a wave, all while having an intelligent sense of the larger dramatic arc. Particularly beautiful was the Andante of the first work. Just the atmosphere that was created was the kind to make one hold their breath, which really did justice to the composition.
He was joined onstage by Logan Skelton for the Schubert Fantasy in F minor D940, another late work of Schubert, and one of the most heartbreaking compositions in all of the four hand repertoire. Skelton took the primo part, conveying the somber and serious character of the opening. The two performed with a spirit of generous musicianship in the ensemble as they brought out the powerful character changes with vigor and deliberation. The fugue that ended the piece was massive and vigorous in its effects.
The “transition” portion of the concert actually called upon its own tradition, or rather, American “eclectism”. The program consisted of Skelton’s own compositions, which vividly ran the gamut of musical styles, kind of like a musicological crash course encased in clever and creative ways.
The fest of “Skelton plays Skelton” was highly enjoyable, so much so that some of the audience members felt compelled to sing along, pleasing the composer to no end.
He began with his Suite for Piano, composed in 1993. It was a truly delightful set of four pieces, ranging from Russian-like pomp to pointillistic runs.
He followed this with his charming American Sketches: Seven Folk Song Settings, which he performed with former student and current Amalfi coordinator John Boonenberg. Skelton introduced his set as “tunes I heard as a little boy”. The sketches and performance called up distinct characters: grandeur, soulfulness, mischievousness, raucous insouciance, fractured emptiness, and innocence, to name a few. The two performed with a familiarity and ease that reflected their close musical relationship.
Skelton ended the program with his Civil War Variations (1988), based on the classic American tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The work is a virtuoso display of musical scholarship, paying homage to a vast variety of pianistic styles and genres. The variation structure is sectional, with several slow respites, and frequent use of rhythmic crescendi to create drive and climax. The set seems to take after the fantasy-like variation model that Rachmaninoff used in his Paganini Rhapsody, which makes Skelton’s allusion to that work at the end of his War Variations all the more fitting. Skelton’s pianism was extremely engaging as he maneuvered through the rapid-fire changes with ease and aplomb. As he rolled out the theme, Skelton, bolstered by the participatory freedom of the Italian audience, seemed to encouraged the audience to sing along. The piece creatively incorporated a huge range of musical quotes and styles, moving from driving virtuosity to meditative chant, from channeling a soulful blues singer to disjunct contemporary textures. Several florid passages seemed to come from French impressionistic style. Others evoked the heavy eeriness of a dirge. There was even a baroque-like Siciliano statement, and an allusion to the barbarism of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The audience responded with enthusiasm to the fireworks of the set.
The night ended with a charming encore of George Shearing’s jazz arrangement of “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” which sent us off in a contented haze, a perfect end to the backdrop of music in the beautiful setting of Vico Equense.