Arts & Culture

Liszt makes comeback in Sayles concert

Contributing Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2011

While the average Brown student might be more familiar with the Phoenix song “Lisztomania” than Franz Liszt’s classical compositions, Saturday’s “Listztomania! A Bicentennial Festival Concert” proved that nothing beats the original.

The concert — performed in a nearly filled Sayles Hall — occurred both Friday and Saturday nights, as part of the two-week “Visions of Liszt” festival held in honor of the Hungarian composer’s bicentennial.

Dana Gooley, associate professor of music, described Liszt Saturday evening as “one of the first multimedia composers,” drawing inspiration for his pieces from art — hence the festival name “Visions of Liszt.”

According to Gooley, the pieces performed at “Lisztomania” were chosen to highlight Liszt’s lesser-known religious and orchestral pieces.

Gooley said the festival organizers wanted to have a concert that incorporated the ensemble efforts of an orchestra, organ, piano and chorus to showcase the diversity of Liszt’s work beyond the piano music for which he is best known.

 “I think Liszt is one of those misunderstood, maligned composers in the musical world, and people may only know him for one or two pieces, or even more for his reputation than his work,” said Mark Steinbach, University organist, curator of instruments and lecturer in music.

 Steinbach said the concert gave audience members a chance to experience the complexity of Liszt’s work and his composing virtuosity. Steinbach’s performance of “Prelude and Fugue on the name B-A-C-H (1870 version)” on the organ was visually stimulating, a blur of rapidly moving fingers on keys and feet on pedals. Audibly, it was a full and resonant piece of music that reflected Liszt’s intricacies.

As a performer, Steinbach said playing Liszt is both technically and physically challenging, akin to “running a marathon.” As a lover of music, Steinbach said he appreciates Liszt for his “musical surprises” and “mercurial” nature.

“If you have a Bach fugue, it is complicated but very logical. Liszt is very complicated but not always logical,” Steinbach said.

In a concert composed of work that explores the themes of heaven and hell, the Brown University Chorus filled the role of angelic voices in the pieces “Anima Christi” and “Ossa Arida.”

But the logistics of accompanying the organ meant the audience was able to watch the performance only on a projection screen. While Liszt was the “first multimedia composer,” having to watch the first portion of the concert on a screen put up a wall between the performance and the audience that slightly detracted from the show.

But pieces such as “Consolations, No. 4” more than made up for this by providing the kind of intricate, epic music that one would expect to accompany a brilliant period piece or award-winning film.

Andrew Garland, teaching associate in music, commanded performances of both “The Beatitude” and “The Bells of Stratsbourg Cathedral,” a piece in which Liszt used English poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. With his baritone voice, he exemplified the visceral and humanistic nature of Liszt’s works.

Guest pianist Kenneth Hamilton wowed the audience in the piece “Totentanz” and received a standing ovation. Translated in English as “Dance of Death,” the complex piano and orchestra arrangement was a prime example of how Liszt can take something that starts very simply and layer it into a rich and haunting piece. The way Liszt quickly shifts from something seemingly soft and simplistic to something compelling and elaborate, and then ends on a strangely tender note is emotionally draining in an artistically fulfilling way.

Though “Visions of Liszt” and the bicentennial are now over, “Lisztomania” will linger at Brown for some time to come.

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