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Recital Review

Pianist Jacob Mason makes strong impression in adventurous recital

Sun Jun 04, 2017 at 12:55 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Jacob Mason performed a wide-ranging recital Saturday at Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables.

Jacob Mason performed a wide-ranging recital Saturday at Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables.

The Kaleidoscope MusArt concert series provided the perfect antidote to a rainy Saturday afternoon with a recital by pianist Jacob Mason that mixed a plethora of bracing contemporary music with some impressionistic and romantic keyboard standards. The Steinway Piano Gallery concert hall in Coral Gables offers a clear acoustic in an intimate space, and proved an enticing venue to savor the young pianist’s eclectic choices.

Mason is currently a student at the New England Conservatory where he studies with Stephen Drury. His parents are University of Miami music professors and resident composers Dorothy Hindman and Charles Norman Mason. Works by both were heard in a stimulating program that featured some 20th century rarities.

Mason’s rock-solid technique and attention to detail were aptly demonstrated in Three Irish Legends by Henry Cowell. Cowell (1897-1965) was an American original who freely combined folk influences with extended instrumental techniques. In “The Tides of Manaunaun,” the 1922 score’s first section, an Irish melody arises out of darkness mixed with Cowell’s signature tone clusters, played with the elbow and arm across parts of the keyboard. Mason was fully up to the rapid alternations of clusters and jolly melodic figures in “The Hero Sun.” “The Voice of Lir” flows in a more dramatic, almost romantic language.

Cowell’s “string piano” writing was on display in The Sword of Oblivion. The performer strikes and vibrates the strings inside the instrument to form melodic cells and patterns, adding a tapped out rhythmic figure. Cowell’s wildly ingenuous vignette is eerie, otherworldly and abrasive at the same time. Without pause Mason ventured into octogenarian George Crumb’s “Twin Suns” from Makrokosmos, Book II. Short, at times fierce piano lines combine with string vibration in Crumb’s striking miniature.

Turning to Chopin, Mason offered a big-boned version of the Ballade in A-flat Major. He brought real personality to this vibrant showpiece, buttressed by well-placed dynamic contrasts and a strong technical arsenal.

Charles Norman Mason’s Blazing Macaw for piano and electronics further illustrated his son’s affinity for modernist complexities. In this clever work, the pianist must interact with taped rhythms and sounds. Short, clipped keyboard figures are tinged with suggestions of jazz and minimalism in this clever juxtaposition of man and machine. here too Mason was on top of the tricky timing with fleet fingerwork.

The concert’s first half concluded with The Pleasure Dome of Kubla-Khan by Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The European-trained Griffes died at age 35 in 1920 during the world-wide influenza pandemic. Although Griffes was considered an American impressionist, his 1912 score (somewhat better known in a later orchestral version) also suggests the influence of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin with its sweeping themes that span the keyboard and oriental tinted melody. Mason brought a sensitive touch and fine sense of color to this worthy revival.

The pianist opened the second half of the program with a riveting traversal of Debussy’s “Le Cathédrale Engloutie” from Preludes, Book II. Debussy’s harmonic patterns were beautifully delineated and there was real tension in the portrait of the cathedral’s towers rising above the water, only to sink again. Going straight into Debussy’s contrasting side with “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” from the Children’s Corner Suite, Mason strongly pointed the quirky pauses and off kilter twists.

Hindman’s The Steinway Preludes is a post modern technical display piece. Utilizing one end of the keyboard without pedaling, “Sparkling” is bright and playful. “Pearly” is a fresh re-imagining of a Debussy-styled prelude. In “Velvety,” the middle pedal which sustains a note is prominently displayed as a resonant theme builds among rippling figuration. In her introductory remarks, Hindman said she wanted the listener to hear the instrument’s hammers repeatedly being struck in “Brittle” and she certainly accomplished that. “Thunderous” brings vigorous, dynamic piano lines at full force. Both entertaining and a technical minefield, Hindman’s miniatures were delightful and Mason seemed to thrive on them.

Two of György Ligeti’s etudes (“Arc-en-ciel” and “Der Zauberlehrling”) offered a slightly bluesy version of a Chopin nocturne and a  finger-breaking test of speed and dexterity. Mason brought out the startling originality of Ligeti’s sound world.

Romantic Brahms concluded this adventurous musical journey. The Vier Klavierstücke was the composer’s final solo piano work. Mason astutely marked the autumnal serenity of the Intermezzo in B minor. He offered a brisk, restless personalized view of the E minor Intermezzo and there was richness and warmth in the Intermezzo in C Major. The triumphant Rhapsody in E-flat Major emerged bold and incisive with contrasting moments of elegance.

Mason’s softer side came to the fore with a dreamy rendition of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess as an encore. He is clearly a talented player with a penchant for offbeat and demanding repertoire. It will be interesting to observe his future progress.

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