Concert Review: "The Unknown Diabelli Variations"

Overwhelming variety became near-perfect unity at Rutgers tonight. At 7:30 in Shindell Hall, the piano studio of Professor Min Kwon put itself to the task of previewing an ambitious program of over fifty short variations on Anton Diabelli’s Waltz Theme. Though Diabelli’s theme was made famous by Beethoven’s Op. 120, none of that (long) work was played tonight. Interestingly, tonight’s program was a dual feature of minor composers from both 19th century Vienna and 21st century New Brunswick. The rare combination of music past, present, and mostly unknown, all through the hands of 27 virtuoso pianists, made for a compelling and utterly unique program. The concert this Tuesday at Carnegie Hall is surely not to be missed.

The program is a veritable feat of logistics. While each pianist took the bench to perform their two or three assigned variations, focus shifted to professor Kwon, who, seated on a nearby stool, addressed the audience with her biographical commentary on the composers whose music was about to be heard. Her remarks, often a curious blend of dry sarcasm and thoughtful observation, charmed the audience. It was amazing that in such a dense program the pace was natural and flowing. How the many set changes were executed in sequence so seamlessly is a mystery attributable perhaps singularly to Professor Kwon’s managerial expertise. A talented force, she is indeed.

Unvarying from the main theme, the music itself was a multifarious deluge of C major. Some variations were pedestrian; Wenzel Johann Tomaschek’s neglect of the left hand was a 19th century Yanni. Others were exercises in classical virtuosity. Carl Czerny’s Coda, as noted by Prof. Kwon, laid all the pianist’s tricks on the table. Still other variations made a point to exploit scales in thirds, hand crossing, and every variety of two-handed arpeggio. Again, so much C major. Yet there were pleasant surprises among the many variations; Joseph Panny’s imitation of orchestral texture was striking, Johan Schenk’s use of dramatic rhetorical devices could have passed for Beethoven. Some were comic. The young Franz Lizst’s variation was exactly as showy as you’d expect, and a potent reminder of his forward-thinking genius. Archduke Dux’s variation was an impressive piece of counterpoint with a surprise after a long held pedal E.

Franz Schubert’s variation, melodically voiced with exceptional clarity by pianist Nathanael Francis, was the evening’s moment of simultaneous beauty, melancholy. In the second part of the waltz, interpreted at a fine slow tempo by Mr. Francis, Schubert plays a subtle harmonic game. An A-flat Dominant 7th chord, written under a melody that in other hands could just have easily been harmonized with C minor or E-flat major chord, instead pulls us toward a ‘wrong’ relative D-flat major. But Schubert does not grant us the expected D-flat triad. In a masterstroke, instead the bass ascends chromatically to an F-minor with a 4-3 suspension, which in turn kicks off a descending sequence that leads seamlessly to a half cadence. Oh, how we minor composers long to imbibe such genius!

Then there were those variations of our dear Rutgers composers. At the risk of sullying my impartiality, I perceived my trifle employed a subtle harmonic and textural humor (perhaps subtle at the expense of memorable). It was handled with sensitivity and dexterity by MiJung Cho, who was a pleasure to work with. Composer Patricio Molina, performing his own virtuosic variation, played confidently and with great energy. His harmonic language is one of contemporary triad-ism, strikingly parallel voices executed with a kind of modern bare beauty. Mr. Molina’s piece also made outstanding, clear use of the piano’s upper range. Chung Eun Kim’s composition, performed by Robert Grohman, was a jazz-inflected variation that in his hands made the instrument sound like a big band, but better. Liza Sobel’s composition was the most modern of the bunch; a long, spidery chromatic line crawled up from bottom to top of the keyboard. The theme was pleasantly apparent.

The pianists were unanimously, unequivocally, fantastic. Across the board, Min Kwon has cultivated a studio of musicians that boasts astounding breadth and quality. The studio is an achivement unto itself. In performance one nearly loses sight of how high the quality really is, but only for lack blemishes by which to compare the unfolding keyboard mastery. The variations, many of which push the virtuoso to the limits of his ability, were all executed with style (in music as well as garb), grace, and precision. Some players stood out. Erikson Rojas, who could faintly be heard humming along with the music as he played, gave a powerful interpretation of Czerny’s coda that edged on romantic. Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin also impressed me, with her clear polished runs. Nathanael Francis was noted above for his exceptional voicing. Nuno Marques played a soulful adagio in Variation XIV, finely ornamented with pianissimo trills. Michael Bulychev-Osker played his own composition, also of high quality, admirably. To recall all the wonderful moments of tonight’s playing is beyond this author’s limited memory but suffice it to say: wow. Bravo, all.

I close on a short philosophical note. Many of tonight’s variations were penned by composers who were the best of their day, yet who among us can, with integrity, speak of their love for the piano sonatas of Carl Maria von Bocklet, or their fondness for the arias of Johann Pixis? Some of the composers I heard tonight have rightly faded into obscurity. But others—Panny, Kanne, Friedrich Weber—wrote quality music that speaks with a clear, distinct voice. And so I the composer leave the hall with a glaring existential question. Why should their music have faded? What will become of my friends’ and mine?

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