Adventures in Piano, Haydn to Tatum

Anne-Marie McDermott
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Before the second half of a recital by the pianist Anne-Marie McDermott at Town Hall on Sunday afternoon, Elliott Forrest, an announcer for WQXR, the classical radio station owned by The New York Times, aptly described the program as a “concert of contrasts.” Mr. Forrest was hosting the eclectic event, the first in the 2009 Free for All at Town Hall series.

Ms. McDermott inaugurated this worthy venture (which offers free tickets on a first-come-first-served basis) in 2003 in a joint recital with the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Sunday’s concert was distinguished not only by its adventurous lineup but also by Ms. McDermott’s excellent musicianship in two premieres and several Haydn sonatas, programmed in honor of the bicentennial of the composer’s death.

The concert began with an expressive rendition of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 40 in G, followed by the Piano Sonata No. 20 in C minor. Ms. McDermott’s characterful playing was notable for its clean articulation, singing lines and eloquent phrasing. She performed some of the fast movements, like the Presto from Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 52 in E flat, at lightning tempos but didn’t sacrifice detail for speed.

The program also included new works by Charles Wuorinen and Clarice Assad, composers of radically different aesthetics.

Ms. McDermott offered a committed performance of the world premiere of the Fourth Piano Sonata by Mr. Wuorinen. Although he is a proponent of serialist modernism, his stern language has mellowed somewhat in recent years but still sounds highly academic in light of the more frequently programmed Minimalists, neo-Romantics and in particular the current crop of border-hopping eclectics.

Mr. Wuorinen has described himself as a “maximalist,” although a glance at the drowsy, glum-faced audience seemed to indicate that his new work was having minimal impact. But there were colorful moments interwoven with the uncompromising language of the four-movement sonata, whose first movement occasionally sounded almost Scriabin-like. And there were good-humored witticisms in the second movement and a whirlwind of activity in the final one, which followed a tedious slow section.

In contrast was the New York premiere of “When Art Showed Up” by Ms. Assad, a young Brazilian composer. Before beginning the piece she learned that Ms. McDermott, a fan of Art Tatum, had always wanted to play jazz. According to Ms. Assad, her programmatic work evokes a pianist learning a new classical piece while possessed by the spirit of Tatum. The lively work, in theme and variations form, alternated between Baroque and Classical allusions and jazzy interludes of increasing energy played with panache by Ms. McDermott.

As an encore there was more Haydn: a lithe rendition of the Presto from the Piano Sonata No. 38 in F.