A Youthful Vigor, Flowing Through to His Fingertips
There is always a downside in describing a young artist like the brilliant New York-based pianist Conor Hanick as a champion of contemporary music. At 31, Mr. Hanick, who holds a doctorate from the Juilliard School, has won acclaim for his exciting performances of new and recent music with orchestras and ensembles around the world. On Monday night he brought his enthusiasm for contemporary music to the two-week International Keyboard Institute and Festival, at Mannes College the New School for Music, playing an engrossing and, in his own words, “unorthodox” program.
Still, describing Mr. Hanick as a contemporary-music champion can suggest that he is a specialist rather than a connected young artist with a natural curiosity about new music. Besides, during a typical season Mr. Hanick plays Mozart, Schumann, Debussy and such. The technical refinement, color, crispness and wondrous variety of articulation he brought to the contemporary fare played on this occasion would benefit works by any master.
Mr. Hanick began with “Stems,” by Alex Mincek, the founding artistic director of the Wet Ink Ensemble. The piece unfolds in a series of short, staggered, crunchy chords, though certain notes and sounds linger. Eventually the music erupts with spiraling, skittish figures. Mr. Hanick gave a rhapsodic yet eerily controlled performance.
He then spoke to his audience, offering witty and insightful comments to explain the concept behind his recital. All the pieces, he said, explored different dimensions of resonance in sound, as well as innovative ways to write for the piano. The program was framed by two works representing the “old and new garde of the New York avant-garde,” as Mr. Hanick put it, opening with Mr. Mincek’s recent piece, and ending with Morton Feldman’s “Palais de Mari,” written in 1986, the year before the composer died.
Mr. Hanick gave scintillating accounts of two daunting movements for solo piano from Messiaen’s epic 1974 work for orchestra, “Des Canyons aux Étoiles” (“From the Canyons to the Stars”). These two excerpts take Messiaen’s obsession with bird calls to the level of “aviary insanity,” as Mr. Hanick put it. His playing had the requisite ecstatic fervor, as well as effortless elegance.
The French-born Tristan Murail, who studied with Messiaen, wrote “Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire ...” (“Bells of Farewell, and a Smile ...”) as a memorial work to Messiaen in 1992, and Mr. Hanick conveyed the mix of homage and contemplative reflection in this restlessly dramatic music.
David Fulmer wrote “Whose Fingers Brush the Sky” this year for Mr. Hanick, who here gave the New York premiere. To play this engaging, mysterious work, Mr. Hanick switched to a second piano onstage that sounded like a few of its strings had been prepared, à la John Cage, and required him to lean in his lanky frame and pluck strings.
To end, Mr. Hanick played the 25-minute Feldman work, which he described as a masterpiece from the second half of the 20th century. He said that he was getting a little “perverse pleasure” from playing “Palais de Mari” in a piano festival, since it is almost “an anti-piano piece.” Like most of Feldman’s works, this soft-spoken composition uses minimal, spare gestures and notes: just gentle cluster chords and fragments. In the final section, a recurring rhythmic figure becomes almost like a cradle rocking, Mr. Hanick said.
To appreciate the music, you have to get into a “meditative slash vegetative state,” he said. This was easy to do while listening to his calmly assured and beautiful playing, a performance that displayed a different kind of virtuosity.