Pianists showcase their talents

By Jay Harvey | April 02, 2009

Instrumentalists who pursue concert careers sometimes talk of "finding a voice," but with this year's finalists in the Classical Fellowship Awards, the American Pianists Association found a couple for them. Wednesday evening at Butler University, it was up to the pianists to suit their developing "voices" at the keyboard to a selection of German lieder and to singers Alan Dunbar and Elisabeth Honn Hoegberg.
Since the program, all from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leaned toward the self-conscious, raffiné side of the repertoire, the piano's role tended to be part psychiatrist, part Greek chorus, part alter ego. The sum of such parts can overwhelm a song, but that was a chance Hugo Wolf often took in his brief, hectic career. Most of the selections were from Wolf's "Spanish Songbook" and were entrusted to pianists Adam Golka, Michael Kirkendoll and Igor Lovchinsky.
Finalist Grace Fong dealt with five Mahler songs, and Elizabeth Joy Roe played three by Berg, two by Richard Strauss. All expertly donned and doffed the expressive masks required of them. The singers posed a less welcome contrast: The soprano had a curiously "white" tone, sometimes like a boy soprano's, but more forceful, and her German was all-Yank ("mir" came out "mere"). Usually a
generic sense of the words emerged. Dunbar's well-focused tone was linked to fine German diction and unfailing, sometimes electrifying engagement with the texts.
In the midday Chamber Music Series at Christ Church Cathedral, Golka showed his insight into the lyrical character and passions of music by Scarlatti, Medtner and Zarebski. Joined by the Parker Quartet for Zarebski's Piano Quintet in G minor, he had his skills as an ensemble player tested. That's because for the first two movements, the piano's job is atmospheric, vital but ancillary.
Golka's steady contributions were expertly colored. With the piano taking the lead, the Scherzo sets off at a gallop; that feeling persists through rhythmic upheaval and a profusion of themes. The quintet locked in on it all with zest.
The Medtner solo selections, "Canzona matinata" and "Sonata tragica," amount to a song of innocence contrasted with a song of experience. Golka confidently embraced the emotional extremes and managed the stormy ascent of the latter piece's coda heroically.