Korean pianist Ji: Blowing minds in showy DC debut

Formidable talent hearkens back to era when pianists were showmen. Photo: Ji/Christian Steiner

WASHINGTON, December 11, 2013 – After attending the extraordinary Washington debut last week of the youthful and exuberant Korean pianist, Ji—the 22 year-old artist formerly known as Ji-Yong—we decided to wait a bit to collect our thoughts. His mind-blowing, back-to-the-future December 3 recital generally wowed the audience at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater where he performed under the auspices of the Young Concert Artists (YCA) series. But his interpretations could, at times, have employed a bit more subtlety.

Like an increasing number of up and coming classical artists today, Ji takes a page out of the rock musician’s PR handbook. In a musical world where a mere brilliant artistic performance no longer guarantees a full house, more than a few classical soloists of the current generation are now creating outfits, attitudes and personae in the hopes of attracting the younger demographic to their concerts. And likely, also because it’s fun.

Ji appears to have embraced this notion. Abandoning traditional concert garb for an all-black outfit, including a short-sleeved shirt to better display some rudimentary tats, Ji strode confidently onto the stage smiling broadly like the happy musical warrior he turned out to be. That’s because, outfit aside, the most impressive part of the show was the pianist’s lusty, cheerful but relentless attack on the Terrace Theater’s Steinway concert grand.

Pianist-composer Franz Liszt is said to have occasionally snapped strings in his pianos during his legendary, 19th century performances due to the overwhelming intensity of his attack. Ji at times during his recital seemed to be having a go at the Hungarian master’s power-performer reputation, and was thwarted in his attempt only by the solid construction and technical superiority of the modern Steinway.

This young pianist clearly had a two-point plan in mind as he sat down to play. First and foremost, he intended to impress the audience with his mastery of technical and interpretative skills. But he also intended to accomplish this with visual excitement, flair, and showmanship, elements often neglected by our coolly professional Boomer generation artists but which proved key to the success of late-Romantic piano soloists such as Rachmaninoff and Horowitz.

(A short YCA video on Ji appears below.)

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Ji launched his recital with the Bach Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, as arranged for the piano by the turn-of-the-20th century Italian composer, pianist and teacher Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni was a formidable piano soloist, heavily influenced by the traditions of those diametrically opposite composers J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt, both of whom influenced Busoni’s own compositions.

In this Bach transcription, Busoni centered on Bach’s sense of order and style while adding Lisztian brilliance to the mix. His version of the original combines Bach’s rapid passagework with Liszt-inspired high drama. The result is a booming, difficult, heavily bass-lined piano solo that, on a Steinway, at least, sounds almost as if it were being performed on a mighty organ.

That is, this work comes across that way if the pianist performing it conceives of it that way, which Ji does and did during his recital. His powerful and intense interpretation of this arrangement seemed also to be his declaration of artistic intent.

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He performed the Bach-Busoni with a pianistic technique that Prokofiev and at least the early Bartók would likely have endorsed; namely, an emphasis on the piano’s percussive personality rather than its string identity.

Ji approached the Bach-Busoni with this idea in mind, hammering the piano into the kind of room-filling majesty that the Baroque master would never have imagined while sitting at the keyboard of a modest harpsichord, yet a sound that easily can suit 21st century musical tastes.

Surely there were those who found Ji’s take on this work distasteful at best. Yet whatever one’s point of view, his performance was viscerally exciting, a fusillade of shock and awe blasting forth with such intensity that it might have registered a modest blip on the Richter scale.

The calmer Schubert Impromptu in B-flat major, Op. 142, No. 3 that followed the Bach-Busoni, was likely programmed to provide some breathing room in the program, enabling the audience to catch its breath before the pianist commenced his next round of pianistic fireworks.

Unfortunately, Ji did not seem enthusiastic about performing this loosely constructed but gracious piece, perhaps because it was difficult to rappel so quickly down the lofty peaks of the Busoni transcription. For that reason, the Schubert, although again performed without apparent technical flaw, seemed inappropriately nervous and edgy.

American composer John Corigliano’s “Etude Fantasy” followed the Schubert and concluded this recital’s first half.

A spiky, modernist, more or less atonal work, the “Etude Fantasy,” consists of five distinct parts or movements, each highlighting a specific technical difficulty. Taken together, they constitute a ferocious challenge for any pianist, let alone the new kid on the block. But Ji came to the Terrace ready to do battle. After contemplating the situation silently for a moment, he enthusiastically launched his answer to Corigliano’s challenge.

The classical “etude”—which is best translated into English as “study” is just that. It was designed as a relatively short piece focusing on one of many key pianistic techniques that is meant to be practiced by a student over and over again until that technique is mastered.

Chopin most famously recast this normally pedantic format into twenty-four of his most famous piano miniatures, turning each “study” into an amazingly wide-ranging series musical essays, each based, however, on a single pianistic challenge.

Corigliano’s “Etude Fantasy” takes the Polish master’s idea one step further. These intensely difficult modernist miniatures lack Chopin’s subtlety and charm entirely. Yet they, too, constitute a bristling challenge to any performer who chooses to take them on.

Underscoring his understanding of the situation, Ji tackled Corigliano’s etudes with all the ferocity they demand, beginning from the very first note. Etude number one is for the left hand alone, ostensibly intended to provide some extra work for that hand, which usually doesn’t get as much work in a pianist’s repertoire as the right.

Corigliano’s take on this exercise requires the production of considerable volume from the weaker hand while demanding the smooth production of the kind of rapid and nearly impossible legato stretches that Chopin explored in his very first Etude in C. Ji performed this etude as marked, but also added flashes of excitement and drama while sustaining the necessary volume. The somewhat quieter “Legato” etude that followed, echoed and pursued the same issue, but with both hands, preparing the performer to approach the third.

Entitled “Fifths to Thirds,” this third etude is literally that, alternating as it does intervals of the fifth—the back and front ends of a standard triad usually played with the thumb and pinky—with intervals of thirds, typically involving the thumb and middle finger or the middle finger and the pinky, though the pianist’s mileage may vary.

Corigliano’s challenge here is to run through these alternating figures at breakneck speed while traveling up and down the keyboard with a further mixture of complex patterns that at times would seem to call for 12 fingers rather than the conventional 10. Ji flew traversed this wicked movement with remarkable dexterity—a good thing, too, since the next etude, subtitled “Ornaments” proved even rougher.

Corigliano’s “ornaments” in Etude 4 have nothing to do with Christmas decorations. They are, in fact, little musical embellishments or tricks that nearly all composers add into their works on occasion to provide some variation in repeated passages.

Turns, trills, rippling arpeggios, glissandi—all add surface interest and complexity to a piece and often contribute some artistic thrills as well to a live performance if executed well. But in this etude, Corigliano simply piles them on, and on, and on into a shockingly reckless little piece that should require the kind of cautionary label we often see on TV reality shows: “Warning. Do not try this at home.”

Obviously, Ji did try this at home and everywhere else he practiced it, resulting in a jaw-dropping display of sheer technical skill. He blasted through the composer’s virtual keyboard slalom, keeping nearly all notes perfectly and cleanly intact in spite of his breakneck pace.

Corigliano’s final etude, “Melody,” was scarcely that. But it was a surprisingly low-key way to wind down the set, evoking, as it did, ghostly recollections of the preceding etude. Ji paid this little finale the appropriate amount of reverence, bringing this set to a haunting, effective close.

Ji opened the second half of his recital with J. S. Bach’s Partita No 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825, a series of six brief dance-style movements introduced by a Prelude.

Generally, a partita is meant as a lighter musical entertainment, though Bach could never resist adding variations, ornaments, anything else to keep things interesting. Ji performed each short piece with steadiness and accuracy.

Yet at times, he did seem to forget that this was just Bach, not Bach-Busoni. There were bits of unexpected heaviness here that made his performance of the Partita, while technically adept, not quite as musical as it should have been.

The Partita brought Ji’s program to his grand finale, Ravel’s piano score for “La Valse,” a short ballet that’s better known to most in its lush, sweeping orchestral version.

“La Valse” is not so much a waltz as it is the gestation and eventual birth of a grand waltz. It’s order emerging from a swirling, rumbling chaos, a strange, post-impressionist vision of a fast-receding European past capable of absorbing any number of interpretations.

In his performance, the pianist embraced the composer’s musical chaos-theory, rippling through the primeval murk of the opening bass figures while allowing little bits and pieces of a fragmented waltz to emerge and then vaporize like tiny meteorites before coalescing one again in an exhilarating finale.

The grandeur of Ji’s “all-in” performance of the Ravel, while sometimes lacking subtlety, marked a thrilling climax to an evening that was as much a show as it was a debut recital.

The audience was wildly appreciative of the young pianist’s effort, calling Ji back for an encore, which he announced as a Brahms Intermezzo that was performed with a tasteful blend of elegance and grace.

Ji clearly has the intention, ability, and showmanship to become a big name in this century’s classical firmament. The vigor of his attack and his raw virtuosity in this recital prove he can attract attention. But a purely Lisztian approach to the piano, 21st century style, could wear out its welcome.

Ji’s over-the-top virtuosity is incredibly exciting to see in person, and the volume he produced, sans amplification is hard to believe. But an unvarying dose of this can grow old in any demographic. Nuance, shading, warmth, range, complexity, intellectual rigor, and the ability to weave mystery and ambiguity into a fascinating musical tapestry—these are also key tools in the well-rounded classical soloist’s bag of tricks.

It will be interesting to see whether Ji, after an initial season of YCA-supported appearances, possesses this important, yet less showy toolkit. His technical skill is considerable. If he can refine that skill and subordinate it as necessary to a greater range of expressiveness, he could well be on the cusp of a highly successful and storied career.

Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us section of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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