Performance highlights summer piano workshop

A highlight of the Edward Auer Summer Piano Workshop was Wednesday evening’s guest recital, given in Auer Hall by Winston Choi who, not so many years ago, earned two degrees from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.

A winner of major keyboard competitions and very active performer in recital and with orchestras cross-country, Choi also serves as head of piano studies at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, a division of Roosevelt University.

He happens to be a highly gifted pianist, having studied with two outstanding teachers: Menahem Pressler at IU and Ursula Oppens at Northwestern. His command of the instrument is extraordinary, and he exhibited it from beginning through encore on Wednesday, focusing heavily on the impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

As a commissioner and promoter of contemporary music, Choi also included two recent compositions. One is a 20-minute piece premiered last year, “Europa,” by Choi’s close friend and fellow IU slum, Jonathan Howard Katz (a commission). The other is “Agalma” (a promotion), written in 2008 by French composer Jacques Lenot.

The whole of the concert must have been taxing, to say the least. But Choi seemed energized by the self-imposed challenge. He spoke in behalf of the contemporary works and, when Katz’s “Europa” was about to be played, he first switched the spotlight to Katz for a composer’s perspective. The title “Europa,” he explained, refers to Jupiter’s moon, “one of the prime candidates for the existence of extraterrestrial water,” a substance that apparently interests the composer for its qualities and mysterious presence here on earth as well as on that distant orb. The music, heavy on ripples and scales, suggests something liquid and a touch elusive. And if you can imagine the piano works of Debussy as updated a century in dissonance and stylistic quirks, you might come close to capturing the sounds so impressively made manifest by Choi.

Lenot’s “Agalma” approximates so much of the music composed several decades ago featuring plinks, plunks, short trills, if I remember correctly, and carefully timed silences as punctuation. It’s not music this reviewer particularly cares for. Choi played it with all the necessary skill and attention to detail, but he didn’t win me over.

From the works of Debussy, Choi chose the seriously challenging Series 2 of “Images” and the very popular “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune.” Whatever was called for – transparent textures, fluid arpeggios, floating in-the-air sonorities, flutters and ripples – Choi produced with elegance. His strong technique and his sense for control made a listener’s journey a joyful privilege.

The similar demands and qualities called for in Ravel’s piano music — “Jeux d’Eau” (“Play of the Water”) and “Gaspard e la Nuit,” three musical poems based on literary poems by the French writer Louis Bertrand – also profited from Choi’s expert pianism and the introspective and expressive performance he added. Responding to enthusiastic applause, Choi returned to the stage to perform an encore, another work requiring finger acrobatics, Debussy’s Ballade. Radiantly beautiful it was.

Copyright Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer

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