Left of the keyboard

Piano recital highlighted experimental works of famous composers

GETTIN’ DOWN<br>John Milbauer leans into a piece by John Cage

John Milbauer leans into a piece by John Cage

Photo by Tom Angel

The program for pianist John Milbauer’s glorious Sunday-afternoon concert of innovative and/or musically groundbreaking selections was filled with contemporary critiques of the composers whose works he played. Bach, such critiques said, is “mediocre"; Beethoven, “impenetrably obscure,” and so on.

The concert, of course, set out to disprove all such assertions and did so magnificently.

The success of Milbauer’s opener, a fluidly played Prelude and Fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, lay in making both the left- and right-hand lines in the Prelude equally accessible throughout and, in the case of the Fugue, punctuating the separate but important melodic bits so that they echoed and reflected one another. Not a problem.

The trick with late Beethoven (Six Bagatelles, Op. 126) lies in making musically dense compositions simple, clean, and accessibly beautiful. Here too Milbauer succeeded splendidly. Far closer in spirit to theme-and-variation pieces than to orderly A-B-A classical compositions (with the possible exception of No. 4), Beethoven’s Bagatelles ranged from a pretty tune made densely whimsical (No. 1), to a simple sort of hymn given the feeling of a full-blown concert-piece (No. 3), to a delicate melody turned into a quasi-waltz (No. 5), to a rhythmic “grand finale” (No. 6) fully anticipating Chopin.

If I had to choose a favorite, it would perhaps be Bartok’s challenging, rhythmically complex Out of Doors, a series of six scene-painting pieces as markedly different from Vivaldi’s Seasons, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or even Debussy’s “impressionism” as one could imagine. All were exciting, but I would point to “The Night’s Music,” with its growling bullfrog and chirping crickets—slightly atonal, but better for being so. It, too, was magical stuff.

Other works included a couple of delicious John Cage pieces, including one that had the lanky Milbauer sitting cross-legged on the ground before a toy piano, a series of Chopin Mazurkas (a bit more studied than elegant, perhaps), and a magnificent, concert-ending, play-the-keys-off-the-piano rendition of “Thunderstorm,” from Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage—Switzerland.

A marvelous concert!