Kwan, at two pianos, delivers intense show at EMPAC

The futuristic sounds of Georg Friedrich Haas’ “Trois Hommages” that pianist Mabel Kwan performed op
Mabel Kwan
Mabel Kwan

TROY – The futuristic sounds of Georg Friedrich Haas’ “Trois Hommages” that pianist Mabel Kwan performed Thursday night at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center opened the ears of a sold-out group of new music devotees.

The crowd of about 150 sat in the balcony of the hall to better view Kwan’s hands as she played two pianos, which were set at right angles to each other, at the same time. Haas had the piano for the left hand tuned normally, and the piano for the right hand tuned one quarter tone lower. The difference in pitch gave the tones a tinny ring.

Haas, who was present, said he wrote the work for one pianist because he couldn’t find another pianist to play it with him. He chose three composers, who like himself, explored the outer reaches of sound, and translated their styles into quarter tone music. They are Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006), Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959) and Steve Reich (1936-). This was the first time the almost hour-long piece has been performed publicly in its entirety, Haas said.

The lights dimmed to a deep twilight. Kwan came out to sit as a dark silhouette before three blue computer screens. The silent crowd waited expectantly. It was all mysterious.

The Ligeti was technically the most difficult and the longest. Constantly repeated fast notes began loudly in the bass on both pianos and over about 30 minutes gradually worked up to the instrument’s highest notes. As Kwan played the motifs over and over, the sounds became layered with overtones and pulsed to create waves of dark sound that had no specific tones. Now and then, Kwan’s head bobbed in rhythm. Her ability to deal with muscle fatigue from all the repetitive pounding was amazing. The piece ended suddenly. It was a dramatic, intense excursion.

Hauer’s homage was quieter with a repeated five-note scale that altered periodically one tone at a time. Its dynamic level and the subtle variations were soporifically inducing.

Reich’s segment also had repeated motifs at a mid-level dynamic that gradually shifted rhythm and tones subtlely. The changes jolted the attention as everything slowly moved up the scale. It was like a tape constantly unwinding. The tempo increased and it all ended.

The audience liked it and Haas seemed thrilled. Most impressive was how Kwan managed to stay focused with all that repetition.

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