By Dennis D. Rooney
An unusual program by a young Korean-American artist with the single name Ji was the final offering of the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach’s Young Concert Artists series for the 2016-17 season.
Beginning piano studies at age 5, Ji-Yong Kim came to the United States at age 9 and enrolled in the Preparatory Division of Mannes College in New York and later at the Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division. At the age of 10, he was the youngest pianist ever to win the New York Philharmonic’s Young Artist Competition, resulting in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall with that orchestra under conductor Kurt Masur.
He graduated from the Juilliard School with a bachelor’s degree. Winner of the 2012 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, he made his recital debut at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. Subsequent seasons have included a number of non-traditional concert appearances. Along the way, he decided to bill himself using only a portion of his first name.
What he played in West Palm Beach’s Rosarian Academy Auditorium last Tuesday was presented without interruption, the seven works following on without applause until the end of the final item, in accordance with the player’s prefatory remarks amplified into the room before his initial appearance in semi-darkness to perform Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, an experimental work from 1925.
Ji stood in the bend of the piano, while an assistant, seated at the keyboard, had his foot on the damper pedal throughout. The motion of the player’s hands on the strings suggests the mournful Irish spirit supposed to foretell the coming of death by wailing at a window. Specifically instructed motions of the player’s hands stroking and plucking the strings evoke the spirit’s “keening.”
The first of two Bach chorale-preludes, arranged for piano by Ferrucio Busoni, was heard next, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659). Busoni’s piano version always has a suggestion of the original organ, and Ji explored its sonorities smoothly. Think of Monty Python’s “And now for something completely different,” to imagine the contrast between Bach’s cool consonances and the often-tumultuous, variegated sonorities of Ravel’s “choreographic poem” La Valse, as heard as a piano solo. This is a famous tour de force, attempting as it does to suggest the color and textural density of the original orchestral work.
Ji articulated it well but a bit more attention to balanced voices, elegant phrasing and better-differentiated colors would not have been out of place. He attacked the hard-driving and ferocious portions fearlessly and mostly successfully. Reversing course backward as abruptly as forward, Ji barely let the final tonic of the Ravel decay before launching Bach’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645) as transcribed by Busoni. Its sturdy melody was a steadying influence after the Ravel’s cataclysmic finale and lent a nice feeling of closure to this section of the program.
But, with no intermission, there was no opportunity to send a piano technician on stage to attend to the sagging notes of the resident instrument. It has the appearance of a veteran and, as noted in my review of a recital in the same room last month, has difficulty keeping in tune for very long.
When Ji launched Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise (Op. 22), the pearly legato of the former was seriously out of tune. The highly rhythmic Polonaise was not as unpleasantly affected. Ji, being altogether too fond of needlessly explosive accents, did not play it elegantly. John Cage’s 4’33” followed. No accents here. The work is famous for not having a single note for the performer. Its purpose is to demonstrate the changing soundscape of a room filled with audience members and the unconscious noise they make; in other words, of the impossibility of silence and Cage’s opinion that any sounds may constitute music.
In this “performance” the audience was by far the most silent element of the soundscape (except for this listener’s contribution of a few unwanted coughs, which the composer in fact would have welcomed). The roar of HVAC air conditioning was the intrusive constant. It reminded me that when Cage conceived the work in 1952, air conditioning had not yet entered the concert hall (except maybe in Florida and Texas).
After some apparently improvisatory phrases came Schumann’s Arabesque (Op. 18), played as the score requests, “lightly and delicately,” although in the two episodes in the minor, Ji’s penchant for explosive accents was unwelcome.