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Thursday, July 20, 2006
Feast Your Ears: New Music for Piano

Renoir's Feast / Pictures at an Exhibition
Haskell Small / Modest Mussorgsky
Haskell Small: piano.
Museum Music MM141

Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Moments Musicaux / Azerbaijani Dance / Prelude No. 1

Avner Dorman
Eliran Avni: piano.
Naxos 8.579001

Commissioned by Washington, DC's Phillips Collection to commemorate its reacquisition of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, Haskell Small has interpreted the painting with a programmatic piano work that wisely steers clear of obvious choices. While Renoir's Feast contains elements of French Impressionism, Small's rich harmonic language is equally informed by twentieth century post-tonality. Constructing a narrative around the social gathering depicted in Renoir's scenario, Small has written distinctive piano sketches that correspond to each character, linking the sketches with a recurring "river" theme.

A noteworthy feature of Renoir's painting is that it freezes a moment of bustling social activity. Thus, Small's linear interpretative approach is an admittedly curious one; nevertheless, he imbues his harmonically dense work with sufficient emotional resonance. For example, the sketches that depict Renoir and his future wife Aline Charigot both evoke Stephen Foster, though filtered through a lens of Ivesian dissonance.

A concert pianist of renown, Small supplements his own performance of Renoir's Feast with a rendition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, making clear the influence of Exhibition's promenade structure on Small's composition. He performs both pieces with a light and dexterous touch. One could nitpick that he lacks an aggressive edge, but that is not Small's style. The excellent performance and sound of Renoir's Feast do full justice to a substantial and impressive addition the piano repertoire.

Transitioning from the modernism of Small's offering to the postmodern piano works of young Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman, one encounters a less institutionally based conception of keyboard music. Much academic thought maintains that art music and popular music are distinct entities, but Dorman's generation recognizes its still-emerging, all-encompassing cultural identity.

The earliest Dorman piece compiled by Naxos for its 21st Century Classics series was written at age 17, before the composer had received any formal compositional training. At that formative stage, Dorman was already hybridizing jazz and Bach. His subsequent output reveals a gradual harmonic sophistication, but eclecticism remains a hallmark of his work. He does not employ polystylism for its own sake, but to support the dramatic elements in his music: for example, Dance Suite conveys the story of a blind oud player who is fascinated by his introduction to contemporary sounds. Systematically, the piece merges those sounds with the oud player's traditional Arabic dances. Elsewhere, Dorman draws from rock, Broadway, Beethoven, Art Tatum, and countless other sources. Eliran Avni's performances of Dorman's works expertly balance virtuosity with elegant simplicity, which is especially remarkable considering Avni's youth. These skillfully executed compositions whet the appetite for a disc by Avner Dorman's rock outfit, Innovation.

Haskell Small's music surprises with its complexity, Dorman's with its accessibility; each of these CDs anticipates a bright future for piano music, one that is unencumbered by distinctions between "high" and "low" art.


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