Bennett Lerner plays works by composers deserving more recognition, and LAWRENCE BUDMEN is impressed

In an era of safe, tried and true programming, it is always heartening to encounter an artist who makes a major commitment to the music of our time. Like conductors Michael Tilson Thomas, Robert Spano, and Kent Nagano, the pianist Bennett Lerner has actively promoted the work of contemporary composers. On 4 October 2003 at the Lincoln Theater, Miami Beach, USA, Lerner presented a program of 'Music By My Friends' -- a brilliant evening of music by twentieth and twenty first century composers.

Lerner has lived in Thailand for the past thirteen years. He was Head of the Piano Department at the Chintakarn School of Music in Bangkok and is currently a lecturer in the Music Department at Payap University in Chiang Mai. Two works by the young Thai composer Narong Prangcharoen were the most striking and original music on the program. Three Movements (2003) is a dissonant, boldly imaginative suite. The score drifts between tonality and atonal techniques. Here is music that is fiercely modern yet filled with strong emotional resonance. The work requires a pianist with super human technique and dazzling virtuosity. Lerner played this demanding score brilliantly. His pianistic command is awesome. He brought the same passion and fervor to Prangcharoen's The Temple in the Mist -- Homage to Debussy (1998). The composer was inspired by Lerner's performance of the complete piano works of Debussy. The score deftly combines Thai folk music and French Impressionism in a rhapsodic manner. Lerner brought gleaming tone and throbbing intensity to this gorgeous vignette. Prangcharoen is a major talent. His future works are eagerly awaited.

Robert Helps (1928-2001) was one of Lerner's teachers at the Manhattan School of Music. Helps was a legendary pianist and a prolific composer. His Recollections (1959) was premièred by the great American pianist William Masselos. Helps's rugged, complex music is fascinating. The outer movements are astringent, hard driving musical statements. The second movement is a brief lyrical Interlude. Here is fiercely original, superb music by one of America's most interesting creative artists. Lerner gave a stunning performance of this difficult work. He brought delicacy as well as power to this unique score. For his encore Lerner again turned to Helps. The composer's Homage a Fauré is a romantic, melodically inspired pianistic gem. Lerner brought a beautiful singing line to this lovely music.

Christopher Berg is one of Lerner's favorite duo-piano partners. His Ossessione-Omaggio a Ferruccio Busoni (1989-91) is a dramatic, stylistically diverse musical étude. The score contains a quotation from Busoni's Sonatina Seconda. In many ways Berg displays a musical personality as daring and creatively original as Busoni. Like Busoni his music makes extreme demands on the performing artist. Lerner conquered the score's thunderous octaves and tone clusters brilliantly. Berg's Tango-Meditation (1986) is a darkly pensive score. Lerner combined virtuosity and musicality in equal measure. He has a deep understanding of Berg's musical idiom. Berg has written many vocal settings of poetry. His Restoration (1982; 91) is a piano transcription of a setting of a poem by Vladimir Nabokov. This is glowing, lyrical music. Lerner brought subtlety and intensity to his performance.

Romanticism was also at the heart of Poem (If By Chance) (1990) by Tison Street. The rich chromaticism of this music recalls Richard Strauss. The Room (1951) by Donald Richie is a quirky eight movement suite. This score is filled with humor and charm (including a musical allusion to Stravinsky's Petrouchka). Richie is also a gifted film maker and novelist. This inventive work makes one want to hear more of his music. The composer could not have had a more persuasive advocate than Lerner. Incitation To Desire (1984) by Chester Biscardi was part of The International Tango Collection, which featured works by eighty eight composers. Biscardi has written a sultry, modern tango -- a real charmer.

The program also featured three works by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Lerner's four hand piano transcription of the familiar 'Variations on a Shaker Melody' from the 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring was delightful. This arrangement reimagines the music in purely pianistic terms. Lerner was joined by Howard Herring, President and CEO of the New World Symphony and a classmate of Lerner's at the Manhattan School of Music. Lerner and Herring played this Copland signature work with elegance and tonal richness. Midday Thoughts (1944; revised 1982) is a typical piece of lyrical Copland Americana. The revised version -- prepared for Lerner -- is Copland's last published opus. 'Jazzy' from Three Moods (1921) is a witty evocation of ragtime and the jazz age (complete with a Jerome Kern quotation). Lerner played this work with élan and style.

The program offered a rare opportunity to hear important works by composers who deserve to be better known. Bennett Lerner presented one of the most interesting and stimulating concerts of the season.

Copyright © 9 October 2003 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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