When I was a little girl, while my father was listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, he explained to me the story it tells. A party of people set out for a picnic in the countryside by a bubbling brook. Suddenly their gathering is interrupted by a storm; but the storm passes quickly, and they return to their festive gaiety. I listened in wonder as the music told the story – and I was hooked on classical music!
Mark Salman is a fantastic story-teller, both in words and in his brilliant piano playing. Before each piece, he brought each composer to life by telling us a few details about their lives and personalities (from whom they studied under to whom they slept with!); the historical period they lived in (in the Classical period, societies were agrarian and people lived in stable and orderly communities, whereas in the Romantic period, lives were more chaotic and unpredictable due to industrial development and urban living – which helps explain the changes in musical style), and where the piece he played fit into the composer’s musical trajectories (Beethoven began as a Classical composer and became a Romantic; Debussy began as a Romantic but ushered in the Modern period ). As with my father, Salman’s stories and the contexts they provided made me appreciate each piece more fully.
The pieces selected all came from composers who were themselves professional/concert/virtuoso pianists, each with their own unique styles. Beethoven, Mr. Salman explained, was the first to play with curved fingers and lowered wrist which is now the norm. Liszt was the rock star of his time, with crowds of women groupies. Debussy coaxed a velvety texture from his piano so that, as one critic said, “he made one forget that the piano has hammers.” While they all composed for other instruments and for orchestras, they were all particularly intimate with the piano. These composers, then, are perfect for Mark Salman’s interpretive artistry.
He started off with Mozart’s Sonata in F Major, noting that it is the most “operatic” of the sonatas. Indeed, in the opening Allegro, you could picture the characters. There is a bass singing sternly in a thumping rhythm in minor key. I thought of him saying, “You must pay the rent!” He’s in dialogue with a sweet soprano who responded without any worry in her voice. She would charm him out of paying the rent. Salman’s playing allows these different characters to emerge by being a master of constantly shifting dynamics and tempos. His pianissimo is so tender with his fingers carefully caressing the keys, his fortissimo so bone-tingling as he violently attacks them. No metronome to discipline him, as he takes long pauses or ratchets up the speed in order to give nuance to the voices. His two hands sometimes work together with the same message and mood, and at other times each has its own separate temperament and agenda.
Other excellent pianists do not bring out the contrasts in such a vivid manner; most performances of this Sonata are playful and light, but they do not find the opera within. Mr. Salman is like a musical anthropologist, finding the clues and bringing to light the human voices within each piece that have been hiding in plain sight, waiting to be discovered.
This excavation was also evident in his performance of Beethoven’s 31st Sonata, the composer’s second to last. Particularly interesting is Beethoven’s insertion of a fugue into the last Adagio movement, a musical form associated with Bach and the Baroque period. Fugues are highly structured, an almost intellectual form seemingly out of sync with the Romantic era Beethoven now owned. However, this fugue is imbued with emotion, and Mr. Salman demonstrated how the same simple phrase can evoke despondency or triumph, depending on the volume, accompaniment, and register in which it is played.
In every piece, Mr. Salman makes the stories emerge. In Chopin’s humorous Scherzo No.3, you hear an adult, maybe a minister at a pulpit, trying to make an important statement – only to have a bunch of merry, playful children come running in and out again and again. The Brahms Intermezzo in E minor has gorgeous melodies, someone looking wistfully back at languorous youthful days in Vienna. Debussy discarded structure by using the whole tone scale which has no anchoring note in Voiles, or“Sails,” which floats along limpidly with the eddies and gusts of the breezes, going in no particular direction and with no final destination. The final Liszt selection, Vallee d’Obermann, is itself based on a gloomy character living in self-imposed isolation in the Swiss mountains from the novel Obermann, so we had the pianist interpreting Liszt interpreting the author of the novel!
It was fascinating to witness Mr. Salman’s use of the pedal. Usually, when a note or piece ends, the fingers and the foot lift at the same time. But he used the pedal to hold the sound after his fingers left the keys; it was almost mystical to see his hands hovering above the keyboard while the notes still sounded! Only when he released the pedal and moved his hands away was the music over.
Playing music is always a relationship between performer and composer, and it is rare to see such stimulating communication between the two. The stories Mark Salman told in music throughout the evening kept us in rapt attention; we may have heard the pieces before but the stories he pulled from them were revelatory. It is exhilarating when an artist sets free not just his own imagination, but ours as well.
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby
Please visit Mark Salman’s official site: http://www.marksalman.net