Recital offers perfect blending of words, music

By Ben Nyberg

This past Sunday afternoon at the University Christian Church, pianist LeRoy Johnson, assisted by KSU Distinguished Professor Elizabeth Dodd as guest reader, performed the winter segment of a “4 Seasons” series sponsored by the Manhattan High School Class of 1974 Reunion Committee, a one-hour recital of works by McDowell, Beethoven, and Liszt.

The “spring” concert will be presented, at the same time and place, on March 2, followed by “summer” May 26.

Sunday’s program opened with McDowell’s op. 32 set of short pieces, Four Little Poems, interpretive sketches composed in response to the texts of Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Brook,” D. G. Rossetti’s “A Match with the Moon,” and Shelley’s “Winter.” Professor Dodd, herself a poet and accomplished poetry reader, pronounced each poet’s words in turn prior to Johnson’s delivery of the composer’s musical reflections on them.

Ordinarily I much prefer letting music speak for itself (the impact of Vivaldi’s own Four Seasons, for instance, seems lowered rather than raised by intermittent intrusions of spoken verse), but in this instance having the specific words freshly planted in our minds, sensitizing our receptiveness, as McDowell retraced their sense in our universal tongue, felt absolutely right. It was a beautiful union of separate genres, each embracing and reflecting the other.

Of course all of Beethoven’s sonatas are uniquely memorable, but even among Alpine peaks some seem to show themselves to special advantage. Such for me is the wondrous Waldstein. Its opus number (53) has it keeping company with such other middle period masterpieces as the “Eroica” Symphony (55) , the “Empress” Piano Concerto (58), and the “Rasumovsky” String Quartets (59).

Little wonder then that it is both so richly melodious and harmonically adventurous, so abundant in its charm and yet so economical in its design. As Johnson remarked before seating himself to address the myriad challenges of its multi-textured landscape, however great and insistent the demands it may make, performer and listener alike nevertheless find themselves always not wanting it to end.

From the drama of the first movement’s darkly urgent opening chords to the joy of the rondo’s final return to its irresistibly robust and radiant theme, this is profoundly nourishing food for the soul, and Johnson transmitted his deep affection for the enduring clarity and significance of its message with every keystroke.

Almost as if to draw a line between music infused with genuine spiritual content and that which may be full of sound and fury and yet signify next to nothing, Johnson’s final set comprised Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes XI and X. No question that these “etudes” are no mere exercises for students for use in honing their mechanical skills. Yet for all their technical complication and the rousing roar of their thundering keyboard storms, they don’t articulate much meaning.

By contrast, the pellucid simplicity and transparent honesty of Johnson’s encore, McDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” offered a beautiful reminder of how few notes are required to achieve eloquence.

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