Sunday, 21 September 2008

Corey Hamm plays Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated!: Review

RZEWSKI The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Recital Studio
Thursday (18 September 2008)

An edited version of this review appeared in The Straits Times on 20 September 2008

It is a serendipitous quirk of fortune that one of the iconic piano works of our time, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, by contemporary American composer Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) gets heard in Singapore twice in the space of two months. American Christopher Taylor gave its local premiere at the Singapore International Piano Festival in July, and Canadian Corey Hamm's no less enthralling reading was a welcome second hearing.

The hour-long piece from 1975, an extraordinary set of 36 variations on a Chilean revolutionary socialist anthem by Sergio Ortega, is the 20th century counterpart of what Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Bach's Goldberg Variations were to the preceding two centuries.

A short talk by Hamm and recording of the original chorus by pop group Quilapayun prefaced the performance. Very succinctly, he elucidated the structure and numerology of the work – the theme, six sets of six variations each (the sixth variation of each set being a summary of the earlier five), with the sixth set being a summary of the preceding five sets, and the final statement of the theme. While Bach was obsessed with the number “three”, in his Goldbergs, Rzewski’s was equally fixated on the number “six”.

Endurance, stamina and living the moment on the edge rather than absolute digital accuracy characterised Hamm's take, all the more daunting when playing despite nursing an injured finger.

Rzewski's fiendish and phantasmagorical score takes no prisoners, but the small audience at the Conservatory's Recital Studio was held captive by the sheer range of sound and effects achieved. The folk-like melody, first heard in bare and martial octaves, boomed loudly across the small confines of the Recital Studio. Although it was not note-perfect, the gauntlet had been laid.

Through the next fifty-five minutes or so, this theme was transformed through a kaleidoscopic range of styles —jazz, country and western, gospel, atonal and avant-garde musings. I wish I could say that Hamm’s technique was Hamelinesque; there were missed and fluffed notes at the heat of the moment, but he was mostly accurate, leaping over each thorny thicket with great courage and conviction. He really believes in this music.

Not pouting but whistling out part of the score.

The ebbs and flows of the music were very well judged, with each repetition of the said tune arriving with the warmth and fuzziness of a long lost relation. Through all of this, Hamm captured its improvisatory and free-ranging spirit with aplomb, even if the whistling (indicated and demanded by the score in two of the variations) was a tad off-pitch. At least it was audible, and that added to the character of the performance.

The afore-mentioned Taylor had used a synthesiser but that was because he was less confident with whistling skills and needed to project through the larger space of Victoria Concert Hall.

All that was missing was Hamm's slamming the piano lid (also in the score) and the optional improvisation before the final reprise of the theme. Taylor did not play the improvisation either. Both pianists played with the use of a score; I cannot imagine it otherwise.

No matter, any performance of the Rzewski is destined to be an epic. The more one gets to witness it, the more one is convinced by its greatness.

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