Ran Dank makes a triumphant Chicago debut with Rzewski epic

Sat Apr 08, 2017 at 1:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ran Dank performed Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" Friday night at Mandel Hall.
Ran Dank performed Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Friday night at Mandel Hall.

It’s been a great month for piano in Chicago, with Daniil Trifonov burnishing his reputation with a memorable downtown recital two weeks ago.

And on Friday night, Ran Dank made a spectacular Chicago debut at Mandel Hall. The Israeli pianist delivered a powerhouse performance of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! that was as dazzling in its pyrotechnics as it was expressive and insightful.

Written in 1975 for Ursula Oppens, The People United is a modern keyboard classic, and the greatest work in variation form ever written by an American composer. Taking its musical theme from the title Chilean Leftist ode, Rzewski mines the long, indelible melody for a set of 36 variations that span 50 minutes. The People United is epic, not only in scale but in the daunting technical challenges posed to the soloist. Rzewski spins out an extraordinary array of riches from the populist song with remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Kudos to Amy Iwano, executive director of University of Chicago Presents, for programming Rzewski’s neglected masterwork and seeing it through. When the originally scheduled Benjamin Hochman canceled, Iwano had to find one of the handful of pianists that was both available and had Rzewski’s work in their repertoire.

The situation proved fortuitous. Even in a work that has received celebrated recording by the likes of Marc-Andre Hamelin, Igor Levit, and Rzewski himself, Ran Dank’s performance was so remarkable and complete in every way, it’s hard to believe anyone else could have done better.

Rzewski conjures up an array of technical landmines that rival anything in the keyboard canon, and Dank surmounted them all with confident bravura and sonorous heft. He built the vast canvas with a drive and cumulative intensity that had one leaning forward, waiting to hear what Rzewski would serve up next.

The Israeli pianist’s virtuosity and power were simply astonishing at times. Such was his velocity that he managed to shave nearly ten minutes off the usual 50-minute performance time—even as he took up Rzewski’s invitation in the score to insert an “Improvisation” near the end. That cadenza was a flood of keyboard thunder and sonic fury, yet so artfully integrated within the structure that one would be hard put to single it out as Dank’s own creation.

For all the fireworks, Dank also conveyed the subtler expressive modes: the jaunty swing of the song at the second iteration, the broken-chord serial passage, the witty audacity–complete with whistling, as called for in the score–and the spare beauty of the more inward variations.

The first half of the evening offered more mixed rewards with music of Chopin. Dank noted that in addition to both composers sharing a Polish lineage, Chopin’s nationalist genres were as avowedly political in intent as music of Rzewski.

Yet Dank was less convincing in this repertory. His set of Chopin mazurkas were on the steely side, lacking in charm and far too loud for the hall.

The pianist proved more in his element in two Polonaises, bringing extroverted brilliance and bravura to the popular item in A flat major.

But it was Dank’s riveting performance of Rzewksi’s epic that will resound in the memory. Let’s hope this gifted artist is invited back to Chicago soon.

Contempo presents music of Grazyna Bacewicz, Chaya Czernowin, Sofia Gubaidulina, Isabel Mundry and Kaija Saariaho 3 p.m. Sunday at the Logan Center. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu; 773-702-8068.

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