by Jeannette Fang
Paul Barnes is all about communication. He’s the dream conduit for new music. Not only is he a personable and engaging speaker, introducing new works with enthusiasm and humor, but he is an out of the box thinker, constantly coming up with new ways to connect his audience. In introducing Monday night’s concert, he tied his first piece, three of his own transcriptions from Philip Glass’s Orphée, to Schubert. He referenced the theme of the fourth movement of Schubert’s D959 (which Daniel Shapiro had played the night before) by displaying the similarity between its theme and the “love progression” Glass uses in the fourth movement of Orphée. This was a smart move, giving the audience a motive to recognize and hold on to, which creates active listening. It shows us that Minimalism is not inaccessible, and is actually not too far from the music we heard (and loved) the previous night.
Always the jokester, Barnes quipped that the love progression is “a very dangerous theme because it has aphrodisiac qualities, so you have to be careful who you’re looking at when you hear it,” which sent the room roaring. Without even waiting for laughter to die down, he launched right into the Glass. This is common for Barnes. He’s impatient to play; his energy is of the type that needs to gush out. And his playing is extremely communicative; it is a full body investment, where you can see the intensity of every emotion in his constantly moving and flexible form. I think that’s what makes him a unique spokesman for Minimalism. He’s not some sort of blessed-out performer lulling us to sleep with repetitive music. He brings a very human core to the repetitions, pointing out the various emotions within the small changes because he uses such heightened intensity and power, making the music so much more alive and relatable.
The thing I notice about the Orphée Suite for Piano, is that it will arrive at moments of absolute warmth and beauty without you ever having been aware that you were getting there. Because of the constant movement and the slightness of the change, you don’t realize there’s a goal until you’ve reached something that you suddenly recognize as beautiful. There are no outlines to latch onto, and you’re not outside the music predicting its moves, but just along for the ride.
The next piece was Victoria Bond’s Potirion Sotiriu, the titular words being the start of the hymn that work is based on. As we learned in the interview Paul Barnes gave earlier last week, he is head chanter at the Greek Orthodox Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Victoria Bond used his unique affinity to Byzantine chant to write him a piece. Always interactive, he asked the audience to lightly sing the bass of the chant while he started the chant that the piece was based on. The piano then began with powerful growls from the depths, with the hymn appearing first at the top of each arpeggio, then in octaves in the bass. Bond takes all the vast resources of the piano to create huge virtuosic climaxes, which Barnes performed with high energy. There have always seemed to be a unique melancholy and mystery within chants, which Bond never loses this despite the keyboard pyrotechnics that she puts Barnes through. Especially satisfying was when the chant appears like supersonic blasts in the bass.
Gilad Cohen’s Ballade was the perfect piece for Barnes’ ultra-expressivity, as it ran the gamut of strong emotions. Right away, one was struck by the homesickness and longing shown with the opening intervals. The music escalated in energy with spurts of octave repetitions, which seemed like the buildup of anxiety and invasive thoughts. There were several bass ostinatos throughout, and a morphing into a slow dance. All these elements were very cinematic, recalling clear images of evil, confusion, temptations, and chaos. And all of these built into a huge, relentless climax, a crazed despair, that died down into an ending of desolation and loneliness.
The Trilogy Sonata were transcriptions of various operas of Philip Glass, which Barnes loosely tied to reflect the progression of a Mozart Sonata. Again, the fact that Barnes ties the new to the classical shows his eagerness to have people relate to minimalism. Knee Play no.4 really encapsulates us in its world, putting one in a truly meditative state. Barnes brought out the poignant longing in the conclusion from Satyagraha, whose vocality came from an intense desire to communicate. The last piece, the dance from Act II, Scene III of Akhnaten, had a pagan flavor to it, with brisk, motivic LH octaves. The right hand erupted, blossoming, and Barnes himself extended his feet as if feeling the intensity of the piece through his toes. He created an accumulation of sound which overwhelmed, a relentless energy in the performance. His concentration is incredible. (It must be all that meditation he does.)
Monstre Sacrè, a fascinating portrait of the “holy terror” of eccentric genius by N. Lincoln Hanks, ended the program. Each movement describes a particular aspect of the artist. The program notes describe the first piece as introducing the prodigy as “an overwhelming individual who pretentiously and repeatedly interrupts the party’s conversation with calls of attention to her brilliance and authority.” The opening is extroverted, written like a cadenza, which Barnes conveys with a strong sense of drama. One sees the snippets of the French Overture peeking through, reflecting how the party is progressively smothered by this flamboyant personality. The whole piece ends with a gurgle, a hilarious illustration of being stifled. The second movement is a improvisatory romp, with recognizable sequences and cadences of Bach intermixed with backwards baroque tropes, all in a hyperactive and perpetual motion. The third is a story of the artist’s narcissism; a depiction through clever musical palindromes of how the artist falls in love with her own reflection. It opens with a solo line, spiraling languidly, which is echoed by the counterpoint. The piece progresses in this vein, where one line tails the other, in mirrored imitation. The last movement is a demonic dance, with an awesome groove to it. There are strong syncopations which the performer really jived to, infecting us all with liveliness. The opening of the first piece comes back at the very end, giving this whole work a cyclical nature.
Barnes finished with three encores, each one impetuously introduced. The first, which combined “two different types of minimalism,” was a combination of the Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina with the Siloti’s arrangement of Bach’s prelude in B minor (actually an arrangement of the Prelude in E minor BWV 855a.) The way Barnes brought out the long lines seemed to come from feeling every ounce of the notes, allowing it not to get overly ponderous. The second encore was from Monsters of Grace by Philip Glass, and the third was a charming Chinese folk tune. It was a very graceful end, like a breath of fresh air, a perfect cadence after wildly diverse night of exciting new music.