Pianists offer two seldom played works in recital

By Ben Nyberg

Pianist LeRoy Johnson, joined by KSU faculty pianist Slawomir Dobrzanski, presented an ambitious “Farewell Concert” that gave an All Faiths Auditorium assemblage a generous serving of two seldom played romantic concertos Sunday afternoon, Sept. 8.

Programming concerto music for a recital is a substantial risk venture. To begin with, there’s the problem of reducing a colossal orchestral score, with all its tonal, textural and dynamic subtleties, to the sonics and coloration that a single pianist can supply. To be sure, when the supportive orchestration is voiced with both the power and the delicacy an artist of Prof. Dobrzanski’s stature brings to it, the loss is less.

But as Johnson himself pointed out, the loss is still huge, and given that both concertos on the program were performance rarities never heard by many of those present, the challenge to listeners’ imaginations was all the greater. Acting on his advice I let no time pass before ordering up a CD of the more neglected of the two works.

That would be the Concerto in F Minor by Edouard Lalo (1888), of which we were treated to the final two movements (Lento; Allegro). It’s not that Lalo is unknown: most classical music devotees are familiar with his Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra and cello concerto. But the Piano Concerto remains stuck in obscurity.

And from what I heard Sunday, I have to agree with Johnson that it deserves at least an occasional outing. Possibly once I’ve sampled the sound of the work with full orchestral participation, I’ll join (or form) a protest movement on its behalf.

At the very least, judging mainly from the piano’s assignment, it’s a lushly expansive piece with abundant, often soaring melodic lyricism and rich harmonic layering. Seems as if it would be a real crowd pleaser, complete with a final eruption of voluptuous energy sufficient to bring audiences to their feet.

The larger second half of the program was devoted—and I do mean that literally—to the composer Johnson appears to have dedicated his career to championing, the great but not often heard nineteenth-century American, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908).

MacDowell wrote two piano concertos, No. 1, op. 15 in a minor (never heard nowadays) and No. 2, op. 23 in d minor (very popular in his lifetime but rarely mounted now). With orchestral support from Dr. Dobrzanski, Mr. Johnson gave us all three movements (larghetto calmato, presto giocoso, and largo; molto allegro) of the technically and interpretively demanding Concerto No. 2.

After the many storms of notes, the rushing arpeggios and cascading chords of the two concertos, the calm eloquence of MacDowell’s simple, heartfelt “To a Wild Rose,” lovingly offered as an encore, made a touching conclusion to the afternoon’s brief but highly rewarding recital.

As Mr. Johnson, with becoming modesty, would be the first to admit, although a highly proficient artist he is not a member of the select club of “world class” pianists. But in terms of the enthusiastic commitment and earnest application he brings to his advocacy not just for MacDowell but for everything he plays, for live performance, and ultimately for music at large, no one outranks him.

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