Composers’ music thrives in piano performance

Curly gray hair, round glasses, black dress clothes and no smile. That is the first impression of pianist Daniel Pollack as he walked under the spotlight in Bovard Auditorium on Sunday. He touched the Steinway piano on the center of the stage and the music began.

Photo by Sunil Murali | Daily Trojan

Visions and Voices brought Thornton School of Music professor Pollack onstage in celebration of the anniversary of the births of composers Frédéric Chopin and Samuel Barber, 200 and 100 years ago, respectively.

Before the concert began, Thorton professor of musicology Tim Page gave an introduction to the music on the program, praising it as “highly virtuosic,” bursting with “heart, depth and passion.” He brought out Pollack, who performed solo for the evening.

One of the things that stuck from Page’s introduction was his emphasis on the idea that the piano was much more than just an instrument — a piano has a singing quality, a piano has deep intelligence, a piano has musicality.

Pollack was a child prodigy, beginning his piano performance career at the age of nine when he debuted at the New York Philharmonic, one of the most difficult orchestras to perform with; to quote Page, it is an orchestra that “eats conductors alive.”

Daniel Page continued his studies at Juilliard and went on to participate in many competitions, quickly carving a name as one of the great American contemporary pianists.

He became one of the leading American pianists to explore the music of Russia during Cold War, a time when relations with nations beyond the iron curtain were scarce.

Pollack began the concert with the Organ Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J.S. Bach, a prominent piece of organ music that has been featured extensively in today’s pop culture including video games, rock music — even Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Like many baroque pieces, the voicing is an arduous work of inter-related melodies and overlapping harmonies. Pollack showed a masterful understanding of the piece’s nuances and brought out each layer, allowing for the piece to essentially sing itself to the audience.

The program continued with two Chopin Etudes (Op. 10 No. 11 and Op. 25 No. 8), a Chopin Nocturne (D-Flat Major Op. 27 No. 2) and the Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B Minor (Op. 58). Pollack captured the almost flippant air of the first Etudes yet still maintained the emotion behind them.

All the while, his brow was furrowed in concentration, eyes pouring over his rapid-fire hands and still no visible smile. His technique was awe-inspiring; he played so smoothly, as if it was effortless, almost natural to do so.

The Nocturne in D-Flat Major was just as Page described it earlier: haunting and melancholy. Pollack’s steady left hand was constantly accompanying the beautiful melody throughout the piece, inspiring feelings of softness and comfort.

The Chopin Sonata was incredible to hear — because of Pollack’s interpretation as well as the composition in and of itself. Pollack’s pedaling throughout the repertoire was fantastic, holding the notes and sounds over without muddling them. The Chopin work did not lack life in the least.

Next, Pollack played three Debussy pieces, “Reflets dans l’eau” (Reflections in water), “Voiles” (Veils) and “Feux d’artifice” (Fireworks) — all of which were wonderful impressionist pieces to start off the second half of the concert.

The pianist made the notes simply float, giving the segment an effervescent touch. These pieces worked well, serving as a transition from the Romantic Chopin to the thoroughly modern Barber.

At times, it seems as if many people underestimate Barber.

A great American composer, his music seemed to straddle the fine line between harmonious sound and cacophony. Still, after the clearly glorious sounds of Chopin and Debussy, Barber sounded off.

However, once Pollack finished the Barber Sonata with a flourish, it was clear that there was more to the piece than it might seem at first. Pollack once again showed a talent for taking songs that, on the surface, might seem staid or boring and bringing out their hidden depths.

It was also clear that the audience was enjoying the show, so much so that more than half of the auditorium stood up and applauded.

The best part of the performance was Pollack’s encore: Chopin’s Nocturne Opus Posthumous, which he dedicated in honor of his mother, without whom he would not have been where he is now.

It was one of the most tragic songs of the night, with the heavy use of C Minor tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.

At the end of the night, it was clear that Chopin and Barber’s musical legacies endure. Pollack showcased not only his talent, but the skilled music writing of the night’s honorees.

In the end, the concert was just what it was advertised as — an evening of exquisite music performed by a talented pianist.