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Music review: Piano Spheres season finale at Zipper Hall

May 11, 2011 | 12:22 pm

Although pianistic fireworks of the modernist/contemporary kind are commonly heard in the much-valued Piano Spheres recital series, for the finale of the current 17th season, Tuesday at Zipper Hall, pianist Susan Svrček called more on a virtuosity of tranquility. Her coolly compelling program could be subtitled “Zen and the art of focus maintenance.”

Susan From the Zen-ish corner came John Cage’s lyrical and airily beautiful “In a Landscape,” a 1948 piano work with strong echoes of one of Cage’s heroes, Erik Satie. Pentatonic melodic patterns float atop rippling arpeggios, with a meditative character unperturbed except by the occasional stowaway dissonance.

For the evening’s main event, Svrček gave a rare public reading of conceptual composer Tom Johnson’s deceptively pleasant, self-defining “An Hour for Piano.” Its lilting minimalist score has the added audience-interactive component of a rambling, hypnotic program note “to be read while hearing” the music.

Though partly a conceptual prank, Johnson’s piece is also a meditation on the process of balancing surrender and analysis, as active listeners. Written in 1973, before minimalism had spread to wider audiences via Reich and Glass, Johnson’s text ploy is, in a way, an ironic art-about-art gesture dealing with appreciating the then-more-esoteric art unfolding before us.

As music, it’s a harmless hour “for” (not “of”) the piano, a willfully simple minimalist amble, evolving ever so gradually. So, likewise, go the mumbling program notes, should we choose to read them while listening –-  the composer leaves the option entirely open. Often, harmonic textures or rhythmic tactics shift beneath high single tolling notes. About 40 minutes into the piece, a jarring flatted fifth note outside the chord offers a moment of relatively “high drama,” breaking with the code of the work. It ended, expectedly sans fanfare.

Technically, Svrček was a model of restraint and attention to detail and dynamics, as both pieces demand, and also stamina, which the Johnson opus especially requires.

For an encore, Svrček returned with Cage’s “Dream,” a more melancholic companion piece to the longer opener, bringing the program home to a more purely sensuous place.

--Josef Woodard

Photo: Susan Svrček. Credit: Piano Spheres