Should music be “beautiful?” Music reflects life: not just life in general, but what is going on in a particular place and time. While we always hope for a happy ending, life does not always give us roses: violence and war are part of our human experience. Those, too, can yield a terrible beauty. In music as in the other arts, all aspects of life are expressed.
Ukrainian pianist Dmytro Choni, the 2022 bronze medalist of the prestigious Cliburn International Competition, shook us out of our complacency. The five composers in his program – all virtuoso pianists – lived through times of political and cultural change, and the pieces he selected were from periods of innovation and transition in their own trajectories.
He began with Russian Sergei Prokofiev’s Sarcasms, which was written between 1912 and 1914, just before the Russian revolution. It was designed to provoke, comment sarcastically, and force the listener to question convention. Prokofiev’s artistic circle included revolutionaries like poet Valentin Mayakovsky; at that time, any criticisms of the government had to be indirect, wearing the mask of art. Sarcasms also draws from the long tradition of scherzos, or musical jokes. But Prokofiev isn’t joking. The piece literally begins with a bang: drastic and aggressive dis-chords that jar our attention.
All five movements are fast and faster, marked “tempestuous,” “tempo as you will,” “crazy,” “precipitous,” and “extremely precipitous”! The bass pounds out repetitive percussive extremes, punctuated by suddenly loud blasts. While this piece was written long before Prokofiev’s WWII War Sonatas, Sarcasms is disruptive, like the chaos of war. Each movement also has middle sections with tender phrases that alleviate the tension, which are suddenly interrupted as the notes scatter and run. The speed of this piece and Choni ’s ability to make the dynamics and the emotional tone turn on a dime were breathtaking. Like when your house falls down around you, we were left dazed and dazzled by the extreme force of what we just experienced.
Like Prokofiev, Claude Debussy was part of a revolutionary movement in art, in this case, French impressionism. In his tone poems, he embraced the whole tone and other forms of scales which create different moods from the classic major and minor. For example, in “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” a mystical calm permeates; only small breezes cause clouds to gently interrupt the moonlight. In this piece, Choni showed his lyrical side.
Choni selected one of the more experimental pieces by Hungarian/Austrian Frantz Liszt, the rock star of his time, who once broke a piano string with the force of his playing. Choni probably matched Liszt’s strength and agility in taking us on a trip through hell and heaven Apres une lecture du Dante, but luckily, Kahilu’s grand piano survived the test. His selection from innovator Russian Vladimir Scriabin, Sonata #4, has a movement at prestissimo volando, “flying at supersonic speed” – a technique at which he excels.
It is fitting that the program included Valentin Silvestrov, Ukraine’s best-known living composer. In the 1960s, when Sonata #1 was composed, Silvestrov was known for his avant-garde style. Just months ago, Silvestrov had to leave Kiev as a refugee, but he is no stranger to ostracism due to his insistence on musical independence: his works mark him as a fearless champion of freedom of expression.
The audience was charmed by Choni’s hana hou, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. played as theme and variations. He effortlessly dominated the entire keyboard with confidence and grace, while demonstrating that he has a sense of musical humor. We were delighted throughout the concert by Choni’s dramatic flair – fearless pregnant pauses, athletic attacks, and delicate melodic lines.
While music does reflect the particular circumstances of its composers, it is also universal. Choni’s artistry took the original ideas, revolutionary for their place and time, applied them to his own experience, and possessed them fully as his own. Choni, too, is a musical innovator, living in a moment of extreme change for his country. In this concert, we felt the power of violence – but always mitigated by the human capacity for joy and hope.
Listen to an exclusive backstage interview with Dmytro Choni.
Notes & Links
About the author: 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 instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: ©2022 Steve Roby. Images are available for licensing.
Performance date: 26/October/ 2022
Connect with Dymtro Choni on his YouTube channel.