Stephen Beus brings daring virtuosity to Miami Piano Festival

By David Fleshler

The young American pianist Stephen Beus clearly believes the Miami International Piano Festival is no place for false modesty.  After an obligatory nod to Bach at his recital Friday at the Lincoln Theatre, he launched into a program of showy, difficult works that showed off his stupendous technique.

A native of the southeast Washington town of Othello, where he was the fourth of eight children, Beus won first prize in 2006 in the prestigious Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. His stage manner is cool, even a bit stiff, and perhaps he was disappointed at the Miami Beach hall’s long rows of empty seats. But at the keyboard he was a formidable, daring player who hit remarkably few wrong notes despite his edgy style.

 He ripped through Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody like an old-fashioned virtuoso, hands rising high over the keyboard, taking runs in octaves and thirds with the rapidity of a .30-caliber machine gun. There may have been more flash than substance in this work, but in his hands the flash was brilliant.

 Beus was much more than just an impressive technician, however, particularly in works that offered this individualistic pianist the opportunity for interpretive freedom. His performance of Barber’s Piano Sonata—an astringent, rhythmically complex work that might surprise those who know the composer only through a certain lugubrious work for strings—was a suspenseful, intense journey through intricate harmonies and themes fighting to emerge. He built the third movement Adagio mesto to a climax of enormous tension and sonority, and brought the last movement fugue to a fortissimo ending that earned him a mid-recital standing ovation.

 He opened with Bach’s English Suite in G Minor, BWV 808, taking full advantage of the piano’s dynamic resources to shape the long phrases and bring out inner voices. But compared to the rest of the program, his playing was too respectful and tentative, lacking the authority he brought to the 19th and 20th century works.

 The 20th century pianist Nicolas Medtner’s wild Sonata Tragica provided another opportunity for keyboard fireworks, made visible to one and all by the festival’s use of a screen to project the image of the pianist’s hands above the stage. But at times Beus’ virtuosity became too much. Although he played with fluid elegance in the first three movements of Mendelssohn’s early Sonata in E Major, Op. 6, he took the last movement at such blazing speed that the musical substance was buried in the blur of notes.

 The Miami International Piano Festival’s Discovery series continues through Sunday. Call 877-722-2924 or go to

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Sat May 16, 2009
at 12:02 pm
No Comments