Merdinger Plays Music from the American Melting Pot

American Melting Pot cover

AMERICAN MELTING POT / M. GOULD: Pieces of China.1 VAZQUEZ: Ballade in F# min.2 A. ALTER: Piano Sonata, “My New Beginning, Part 1.3 BARILARI: Toccata Gaucha.2 LEVINSON: Shteti Scenes4* / Susan Merdinger, pno; *David Yonan, vln; *Christopher Ferrer, cel  / Sheridan Music Studio, no number (live: 1New York, March 1990; 2Chicago, October 18, 2013; 3Fair Oaks, CA, November 2018; 4Northbrook, IL, 2016)

This wonderful CD, in addition to celebrating the music of three immigrants who came to the U.S. legally (Fernando Vasquez, Elbio Barilari and Ilya Levinson), is sort of a career retrospective for pianist Susan Merdinger. The earliest of these performances, Morton Gould’s Pieces of China, was given in the presence of the composer in 1990 while the latest, that of Aaron Alter’s Piano Sonata Part 1, was given at Fair Oaks, California in November 2018. In a personal email to me, Merdinger made it clear that although she is demonstrating her commitment to living composers (which I surely appreciate!) and the cultural diversity of the American melting pot, she is not celebrating and does not support people coming into our country illegally. I applaud her for both of these views. My blog will prove that I am a tireless advocate for great artists and composers of all races.

Perhaps most interestingly, we start with a late composition by Morton Gould, whose Symphonettes and Spirituals for Orchestra I recently reviewed. This is the other side of his talent, the serious composer whose work can stand comparison with the best Americans of his generation and after. Pieces of China, written in 1985, was Gould’s tribute to the partnership between our two countries formed during the Nixon years. The six sections of this suite are titled “The Great Wall,” “Fable,” “China Blue,” “Puppets,” “Slow Dance” and “China Chips.” Each has its own character and form, with the third incorporating just a smidgen of jazz feeling into the score. I was particularly impressed, here as in all of the works on this album, by Merdinger’s “deep-in-the-keys” touch on the keyboard in addition to her excitement as an interpreter…listen to “Puppets” for an excellent example. For a live performance from 30 years ago, it is also superbly recorded. The music itself is varied and arresting, with Gould filtering elements of Chinese music through his own personal lens.

Vasquez’ Ballade has a Romantic sound to it, but much of it uses whole tones and augmented chords to fill out its progression, making it sort of a combination of Chopin and Debussy (or perhaps Scriabin, who did much the same thing in his later work). It’s very well constructed as a piece, however, and Merdinger does it full justice. This recording was its world premiere.

Alter’s Piano Sonata, dedicated to Merdinger, opens with strong G major chords before moving into a theme comprised of a series of chime chords in the right hand with running eighth-note figures in the left. There is some development in this music but it is not terribly strong, though I did like the “walking bass” he introduced at around the 2:10 mark. There’s also a very interesting harmonic shift at 3:08, at which point the music comes down lower in the piano’s range though it does not alleviate the repetitive chime chords. There’s something of the feeling of an etude about this piece—a very extended etude, of course, since it runs nearly 13 minutes. In that vein, it is a good piece. Alter avoids tiring the listener despite the somewhat repetitive rhythms by means of the variances noted above, as well as a very tricky passages beginning at about 5:40 in which the left and right hands play completely different, clashing rhythms. It must have taken Merdinger some time to get this under control! Following this, the music shifts into a series of running single-note passages in the right while the left plays its own alternate, running bass line. Again, pretty tricky music, although I did feel that the ending was a bit formulaic.

Barilari, who was born in Uruguay, gives is the 2009 Toccata Gaucha. This, along with the Vazquez piece, was played by Merdinger at the Pianoforte Salon of the Chicago Latin Music Festival. This is an altogether more modern piece than the Vazquez Ballade, using the toccata form much more strongly than the “gaucha” influence. The music rollicks along on a continuous series of rootless chords with occasional pit stops for tonality. What I liked about this piece was Barilari’s ability to continually move the music along in this manner without losing sight of the  structure despite the different tempi and moods used throughout. There are so many shifts and changes in theme and rhythm in its two parts (the first lasting 14:43, the second 6:35) that one is held fascinated. Oddly, it is the second part of this work that is the most dance-like, in either a fast 3 to the bar or perhaps 6/8. And, of course, Merdinger’s outstanding pianism and her effective use of dynamics help greatly. In her hands, this truly emerges as a modern masterpiece. Brava!

We end with Levinson’s Shteti Scenes, originally premiered as a chamber music-with-orchestra version but here presented simply as a piano trio. The music is very Romantic and, although in a minor key, not my cup of tea, though I did kind of like the “Freylakh.” It is, however, played superbly by Merdinger with violinist David Yonan and cellist Christopher Ferrer although the recorded sound is not quite as clear as the 1990 performance of the Gould piece.

Taking in toto, however, this is a fascinating disc of unusual music

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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