Alumnus returns for stunning performance

On Sunday evening, Lawrentians were treated to a performance by Matt Blair ‘17, who is touring the Midwest on a solo piano tour. The performance was opened by sophomore composition major Ben Portzen. Each performed a solo piano set in the Esch Hurvis Room in Warch Campus Center. It was a low-key event, but what the audience lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm to see their friends showcase their musical talents. 

Portzen is currently pursuing a bachelor of music degree with a major in music composition. While he plays a variety of instruments, such as guitar and percussion, his primary focus is the piano. His compositions tend to have a suspenseful, elegantly discordant sound that can make the listener feel on edge or saddened—in other words, his pieces are extremely powerful, and his solo on Sunday was no exception.

His first piece began with a speedy crawl down the keys, then a few moments of low, soft, dissonant chords being played intermittently. As the song proceeded, there were short sections of major notes that made it sound like perhaps the melody would become more lighthearted. When it did not, instead always returning to a darker tone, the eeriness of the piece was enhanced. It would be easy to envision the composition as the score of an old silent horror film, especially during an extended section in which Portzen repeatedly played a D note at a rapid-fire pace and, with the other hand, struck an unexpected variety of lower notes in a hopping sort of manner. The piece concluded with a long, grim repetition of an A sharp and a D in the lowest octave.

The following composition was just as desolate as the first, but in a very different way. Portzen utilized electronics to create a high-pitched echo of certain chords, at times layering the ringing tones and compounding feedback. It was intense and somewhat distressing, but did not overwhelm the piece; in fact, it made it more immersive.

Blair, performing next, graduated from the Lawrence Conservatory in 2017 with a self-designed major in contemporary improvisation. He stopped by Lawrence as a part of his Midwest tour, which will continue into late May. Before going into the piece, he explained that he had released a solo piano record last year called “Shadow Sets” and that the song he would play that night was “kind of similar to the songs on [his] album, but not really.” 

His sole piece of the night began reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports”—a slow, calm circulation between five melancholy notes. From here, the twenty-minute composition gradually and seamlessly transitioned into a fiercely sinister middle section. Finally, after journeying through a very dark place, Blair came back around to the original five notes that began the piece, illustrating, it seemed, what is hidden below the surface.

Portzen and Blair are both wildly talented musicians, and the breadth of each performer’s skills felt fully recognized in this intimate recital. Each artist’s future performances, both on and off campus, should be highly anticipated.

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