Pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg has not taken center stage at Hawaii Performing Arts Festivals in past years – we got to know him as the accompanist to featured singers – but even so, he was always a crowd favorite. Approachable, easy-going, with a ready smile, he’s got natural aloha spirit. So we Hawaii fans were delighted to take him full strength for an hour, solo!
Most of the selections were transcriptions for piano from 19th-century operas, and Ronny reminded us that we hear parts of operas written well over a century ago in modern movies, cartoons, or integrated into popular songs. There is no brick wall between opera, which was the musical theater of its day, and present-day entertainment genres.
For example, who hasn’t heard “The Flight of the Bumblebee?” But how many know that it is from a classical opera by Rinsky-Korsakov?! One of the benefits of a zoom performance is that we can sit next to the pianist. Usually, we have to get our tickets early to make sure we sit on the left side of the theater where the pianist is not obscured by the nearly 10 foot black leviathan of a piano, and even if you score a good seat, it’s hard to see their fingers. The “Bumblebee” is lightning fast, whether played on the violin or the piano, and we could watch Ronny’s long fingers fussing and flying over the keys as if they had wings.
Every age has its musical idols. We had “Beatlemania” in the 1960s. Back in the 1840s, there was “Lisztomania.” Women hysterically fought to grab pianist Franz Liszt’s handkerchiefs, and swooned to the point of collapse at his performances. Aside from being handsome, passionate and a showman, he is still acclaimed as indeed the greatest, or certainly one of the greatest, pianists ever; he expanded the boundaries of what one can do with the instrument. Since he composed pieces that he would play himself, his music is truly challenging since there are few that can come close to Liszt’s mastery. Much of Liszt’s compositions were transcriptions of opera and orchestral pieces, since it was not easy to get those staged, and Liszt wanted to promote the works of his friends, such as Richard Wagner. “Liebestod” is the finale to Tristan and Isolde, sung by Isolde before she kills herself to join her dead lover. Ronny told us that the “Liebestod” is used in – of all the unexpected movies – Anchorman 2! Opera is amazingly versatile! In Ronny’s interpretation, the piece is not dark, it is almost triumphant. One does not have to stick to the script, he demonstrates to us.
The second Liszt opera transcription was the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Two women’s voices and two men’s, each with their own distinct character, are woven together, and the whole is decorated with a plethora of ornaments. Rapidly ascending and descending chromatic scales require Lisztian prowess. (Liszt was once criticized for overusing ornaments and being a big show-off!) The third Liszt selection was one of Liszt’s own compositions, a setting to music of a Petrarch sonnet, “I Find No Peace,” which delves into the depths of the misery love can bring. Again, Ronny gives it a lighter coloring and faster pace than one might expect from a poem describing self-loathing and despair; he looks at it from a new angle. Can one enjoy being miserable?
The other two pieces were his own transcriptions, and they were delightfully innovative. Puccini’s La Boheme is set in Paris, but Ronny’s version of “Quando M’en Vo,” “When I walk down the street,” takes us to Brazil, with a pulsing Bossa Nova beat; he even throws in a bit from “Embraceable You.” If the story of La Boheme can be turned into the modern-day musical hit Rent, the opera’s actual music can also get a rhythmic makeover. And in his own Disney/Schumann Medley – who else would think of putting those two kinds of music together! – he begins with the languorous melody of “Traumurei,” “The Dreamer,” which morphs in and out of several Disney songs. We’re given a fun puzzle to solve, as we try to recognize the various tunes he tosses our way with a wink.
The entire program reflected Ronny’s upbeat personality; he finds the positive in every one of his selections. I loved his laid-back style even in the most difficult passages, his playful irreverence, his wit, his demonstration that a piece of music is not a relic but a living entity. Creative artists other the composer can re-make classical compositions according to their own impulses and the culture of their time. Just as Liszt put new spins on opera pieces, so does Ronny surprise and delight us with his own ability to spin it again. “Play it again Sam” – but don’t play it the same!
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.
Photo: Anna Wu