Piano studio mixes music and poetry in successful concert

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim once said that he never wrote much of his music with the piano as the primary instrument because he was not much of a player. However, if he had been better at playing, piano would likely be the main instrument in all of his works, which he did not want. Whether or not you agree with him, you have to admit he was right regarding one particular factor: a piano can do just about anything. Be it individual notes floating in the air or thundering chords, a piano is a world in itself. If there were ever any doubts about this, they were settled at Lawrence University’s piano studio recital, which was held in Harper Hall on Thursday, Feb. 4.

This being a studio recital, 16 pieces were performed. Some of them were very brief—the shortest one seemed to be about 90 seconds. Others were tiny epics—the longest I estimated to be around seven minutes. None of them had much of a similar style—the pieces ranged from across at least 200 years—except for a common theme: each was based on a piece of prose or poetry.

The result was an incredible diversity of texts and music. Writings were from Shakespeare, Lorca, Ashbery, folktales and poems that had lost their author’s original names. There were works by composers such as Liszt, Debussy, Cowell and Brahms, each showing off the personality and styles of the student who played them. After adjusting the bench, the pianist would get up, stand before the audience and recite from memory their particular text, before sitting down and playing their piece.

Each of the 16 performers did very well. Some were a bit hesitant, even a bit wavering in their piece—one particular person had the only verbal applause of the night, right after they finished, but it was such a sweet moment that you could not be mad at them—but came out just fine. Other members sat down and played the piano like it was a video game they had beaten a hundred times over. Their feet worked the pedals gently, they were never anxious in how they chose to interpret a piece, and each one you heard made you feel at least a little compelled to seek out more of the music.

The texts, too, were a surprise—some of them happy and poetic, and others morbid, involving wishing your mother would be damned to the fires of hell and that God only owned half of a tongue. Before the last piece of the night began, we were treated to the vocal version, and we sang together in harmony, more or less. It was a strange way to end, being the only piece to sing, but how can anyone fault it? It was a lovely conclusion to a lovely evening, and the piano studio recitals, therefore, get a hearty recommendation.