Natalia Kazaryan at the APS: Champion pianist champions undervalued composers

Natalia Kazaryan

From the first chords of Natalia Kazaryan’s performance of Lili Boulanger’s  D’un vieux jardin, the first of her Trois Morceaux, 1914), it sounded as if Fred Hersch were improvising a jazz medley. Seconds later, the sounds veered toward the style of Gabriel Fauré, one of Lili Boulanger’s composition teachers. The three pieces, so soulfully interpreted by Ms. Kazaryan, are gems which have been gathering dust since Ms. Boulanger’s early death in 1918 – yet they sound quite modern more than 100 years after they were written.

Ms. Kazaryan, an adjunct professor at Howard University and an Astral Artist, is a formidable pianist with an unquenchable intellectual curiosity. She, like so many other pianists, has an extraordinary technical facility, but she also has an intense concentration and a prodigious ability to memorize music with great accuracy. Her use of pedal is so skillful that not only can she make notes ring out with a long decay, but she is able to make the very highest notes of the keyboard produce a bell-like quality that is quite rare. 

Lili Boulanger.

When she studied Olivier Messiaen’s Le Quatuor pour la fin du Temps, she became so fascinated with his music that she applied for and won a Fulbright to study Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus with Michel Beroff, a world-renown expert on Messiaen’s piano music. Kazaryan’s interpretations of XV. Le baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus was much gentler than the unbridled wild ride she gave to her interpretation of X, Regard de l’Esprit de joie. 

After she cascaded into the final inconclusive chord of the Messiaen, she launched into the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Grażyna Bacewicz, introducing the audience to yet another female composer who has fallen into oblivion. Bacewicz’s was internationally recognized during her lifetime, but has not been played very much since her death in 1969. Hearing this short piano sonata played so freely by Ms. Kazaryan is like finding an unexpected treasure in the attic. The sonata has the percussive, dance-like feel of music by Aram Khachaturian. The first movement, Maestoso, changes meter constantly. The second movement, Largo, has passages of tranquil chords which Ms. Kazaryan made ring out— extending the beautifully voiced sounds through touch and pedalling. The third movement, Toccata, is a fast and furious dance which was impressive for the speed and fury of the flying notes.  

Composer Alexandra Gardner was on hand to introduce the premiere of Hummingbird Dreams, the piano solo she wrote for Ms. Kazaryan. Although the piece was enjoyable, the brief interludes of birdlike music amongst the chordal passages were not that memorable. 

Ms. Kazaryan finished with the performance of three of the hardest pieces in the piano repertoire: Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. The music illustrates Ravel’s ability to make a piano sound like a waterfall.  To achieve the effect, however, the player must have the technical skills to play all the notes – but also to render those notes into a muted background to the melodies which jump out of the watery sounds like a splashing fish. Ms. Kazaryan, having dived into the mysticism of Messiaen, produced all of the nuances of Ravel’s musical trilogy –from the frenetic playfulness of the dwarf Scarbo to the seductive bubbling waters of Ondine the water nymph. 

[Natalia Kazaryan at the American Philosophical Society] December 15, 2019; nataliakazaryan.com

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