Pianist Phillips serves up a program of American music

Sat May 07, 2016 at 2:03 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Photo: Rachel Schimelman
Nicholas Phillips performed American piano music Friday night at PianoForte. Photo: Rachel Schimelman

 Pianist Nicholas Phillips performed a recital of recent works by American composers Friday night at the PianoForte Studios. The program, entitled “New Playlist” and made possible by a grant from the Chicago-based American Music Project, was an edifying selection of homegrown music for solo piano from the past decade, which Phillips gave devoted advocacy.

As a curtain raiser Phillips offered “Eine Kinda Bachmusik” by Doug Opel, the final movement of the composer’s 3 Preludes to Missing the Point (2006). Phillips eloquently sustained the jazzy, Bach-inspired vignette’s lyrical melody over sonorous descending bass lines, and brought verve to several Joplin-esque interjections.

Many of the pieces Phillips chose were in what could be called a neo-Impressionist idiom. This was the case in The Currents (2012) by Sarah Kirkland Snider, where a wandering melody floats over a busy, circling left-hand accompaniment reminiscent of the opening of Ravel’s SonatinePhillips brought grace to this evocative texture and urgency to a more fraught central episode. 

Chicago composer Stacy Garrop, who was in attendance, wrote Keyboard of the Winds for Phillips in 2014, basing the work of a specific range of peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. Enormous blocked chords and the juxtaposition of high and low registers created a sense of expansive space, while fleet figuration evoked swirling wind. Phillips dispatched the naturalistic depiction’s technical demands with ease. 

Joel Puckett’s aphoristic un petite barcarolle (2013) was a persuasive reimagining of Chopin, with close harmonies and shimmering textures recalling works of the Polish master. First Ballade (2008) by Judd Greenstein was more substantial, its sweeping gestures reminiscent of Brahms’ contributions to the form. Both these works would have benefited from greater contrast and bravura from Phillips, which would have been more in line with their Romantic points of departure.

Shards (2008) by Jonathan Pieslak (b. 1974) was the most “modern” (in the sense of discordant) of the evening’s works. Frantic passages of driving aggression alternate with gentler moments of upward reaching melody in this mercurial piece. Phillips executed the vacillating moods with interpretive dexterity.

Phillips offered sensitive readings of two excerpts from Carter Pann’s The Piano’s 12 Sides (2011). “White Moon Over Water” was in the updated Impressionist vein of many of the evening’s selections, though its rising and falling figuration was too directly reminiscent of bars of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Phillips brought earnest expression to “She Steals Me,” a sort of Appalachian waltz that sounded like a collaboration between Jim Brickman and Ben Folds.

The evening closed with Hommage à Trois (2005) by Mark Olivieri, a suite that pays tribute to three twentieth-century musical luminaries.

“Luca’s Swell” has a propulsive groove in honor of Copland, but that more readily brings to mind Gershwin or Joplin. “Gestures” effectively channels Toru Takemitsu in its atmospheric style, but lacks the Japanese composer’s trademark inspiration. And the finale, “Funk for Nikki,” is an energetic homage to James Brown. While some of the jazzier sections sounded a bit square in Phillips’ hands, overall he deployed the impressive, characterful playing one had come to expect of him over the course of the evening.

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