Carriage Barn Series: Yoshiko Sato & Allen Shawn

 Photos of the evening by Celene Barrera '15

 Photos of the evening by Celene Barrera '15

By Daniel George '14

Tuesday night, the Deane Carriage Barn was expectant with the stiff-lipped and well-postured decorum of the concert hall we might ascribe to a bygone era of more stifling norms. Though every third person in attendance might have been tempted to identify and scoff at the social constructs keeping bottoms dutifully to seats and sneezes deep within naval cavities, everyone (constructivists included) realized something simpler was before them. Yoshiko Sato and Allen Shawn put on a classical piano performance that exhausted the limits of the instrument and rendered the audience slack-jawed and reverent.

The piano seems to me, in many ways, at the center of classical music. Its eighty-eight keys across seven and one-third octaves offer enough range to equal a symphony and the ability to have multiple concurrent voicings, making the piano a standard obstacle and instrument for the classical composer and performer alike.

Yoshiko played Bach’s French Suite No. 3 in B Minor first. Though I will embrace that I don’t have the full lexicon for doing this performance critical justice, I believe that even the uninitiated ear could marvel at the evenness of the note articulation as multiple voices modulated in and out. Originally composed for the harpsichord, Yoshiko deftly navigated through a relatively narrow range of notes about the width of her shoulders.

In palpable contrast, Allen Shawn performed four pieces he composed this year for German pianist Julia Bartha. The evenness and soft, undulating lines from the first suite brought the boldness and innovation behind Allen’s pieces into further focus. Between long, contemplative pauses, Allen would smatter handfuls of notes from the extreme poles of the keyboard, working sometimes to evoke twelve-tone dissonance, and other times inviting the listening ear to unwrap the pleasant enigma within the pieces.

To keep the ear as dexterous as the pianist’s fingers, Yoshiko returned to the piano for two Chopin Nocturnes. The structured chaos confronted in Allen’s pieces made the Nocturnes ring sweeter. Before taking to the bench, Yoshiko asked the audience to withhold applause until she stood again; she wanted to play both Nocturnes in tandem. This sort of thoughtfulness and desire to present the piece(s) as a single line of expression permeates through her playing. Poised and refined, Yoshiko performs without unnecessary bravado. 

After a brief intermission, Allen performed a melancholic Intermesso op. 117 no. 2 in b flat minor by Brahms, a piece the composer described as “A lullaby for my sorrows”. Then, Yoshiko pulled up a second piano bench next to Alan for the final segment of the night: four-hands piano. 

The two worked through Liebslieder Waltzes by Brahms in a splendid enough way, but the final piece still occupies the greater part of my memory of the concert. Originally, in 1994, Allen Shawn composed Suite Parisienne as a series of exercises for his daughter – each segment drawing its namesake from Parisian culture and illustrating a new facet of composition, and in turn, performance. Only recently has Allen adapted the suite, adding and adjusting any facets that were rudimentary, to play with his wife, Yoshiko. 

The bouncing and playful Can-Can! opened the suite, an exercise in punchy alternating rhythms and innocent melodies. The Seine, with some birds, and an ambulance evoked that exact scene, complete with a fading ambulance siren, changing pitch and finding strange overtones with a fabricated Doppler effect. My personal favorite, The Montmartre Tango, had Allen leading with lumbering, lethargic, and weighty bass chords with Yoshiko adding flourishes and embellishments over the top that were alternatively leading, following, harmonizing with, and working against her partner. This section revealed subtle truths about the fluctuating relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter, and a composer and an instrument before the final whirlwind tour of iconic Paris: The Eiffel Tower, The Bells of Notre Dame Cathedral, and On the Champs-Elysees. As the final notes rang out, and the four hands lifted from the piano, Allen and Yoshiko looked at each other as though they were unsure who was being applauded, and shared a smile.