Once again this year I was able to make time to attend the annual Young Pianists Play Liszt concert this afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). This is a presentation of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Liszt Society, given in collaboration with SFCM and organized by pianist and SFCM Faculty Member William Wellborn. Performers are SFCM students from both the Preparatory and Collegiate Divisions.
What I particularly like about Wellborn’s approach is that he takes a “Gradus ad Parnassum” plan for arranging the program. This is basically a matter of arranging the pieces in roughly an increasing order of duration. All of the pieces on the program are technically demanding. The real challenge lies in teasing out a musical logic behind all those technical demands and making that logic work over longer and longer intervals of time.
Thus, on this particular afternoon, the most advanced Preparatory student prepared a performance of the “Rigoletto Paraphrase de Concert,” which is basically a highly embellished solo piano account of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” the famous quartet that Giuseppe Verdi composed for the final act of his Rigoletto opera. This is a case in which that quartet provides the underlying logic, and it is up to the pianist to keep this logic in focus while executing all of Liszt’s embellishments with an appropriately flamboyant rhetoric.
Curiously, the selections for this year’s Collegiate students were the same as those for last year, the first of the “Mephisto Waltz” compositions and the second ballade in B minor, performed in that order. Both of these are constructed around an episodic logic, which I have always found more accessible in the “Mephisto Waltz,” with its almost surreal imagery of the Devil sawing away at a violin spinning out a waltz that really is not a waltz. This year’s student showed no fear in confronting the raw dramatic qualities along with the technical demands, coming up with an execution that outclassed many of the more disciplined performances shaped with winning a competition in mind. The ballade, on the other hand is more problematic, and conveyed little more than an improvisatory ramble through a few recurring motifs.
On the whole, however, all of today’s performances seemed oriented around the proposition that there is always more to Liszt than technical virtuosity. Even the Preparatory students at the beginning of the program had achieved an understanding of how the melodic lines and harmonic progressions were defined before Liszt started flooding them with his inventive embellishments. In other words every performer, regardless of his/her level of advancement, had learned to think about where the music was, rather than just about jumping through a series of technical hoops for the sake of little more than athletic display. In that respect Wellborn and SFCM are doing very well indeed in preparing the next generation of piano soloists.