Chicago Theatre Review
Color and Light
Ravinia – Bryan Wallick, Piano
The crisp, autumnal scent of the Ravinia Festival grounds, squirreled away from Chicago’s smog and aural grumblings, whispered of the clarity that was to come when Bryan Wallick played his Bach-centric, organ-celebrating program of the music of that master himself, Brahms’ famous variations on a theme of Bach’s spiritual son, Handel, and the reminiscences of the compositional re-envisaging Liszt in his B-A-C-H fantasy.
Educated at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of music, Julliard, and London’s Royal Academy of Music, Wallick’s gold medal at the Vladimir Horowitz International Competition didn’t quell his thirst for academic studies, and this pristine programming brings both his musical intellect and some of his unique, pianistic singing front-and-center. While Wallick has been giving this concert publicly in various venues since May, it seemed as though it was particularly chosen to embellish the profoundly secretive feel of Ravinia, and for this time of the year when the earth’s landscape burns bright colors to accompany a cycle of reflection.
It is a curious thing to imagine the trajectory of this young performer’s musical understanding from his 1997 Horowitz win to this, his third Ravinia outing. It is likely that a youthful firestorm of technical thundering carried him to that gold medal. The twenty years that have past, during which time he has concertized across the world, found love and the gift of children in South Africa, and is now proving himself the skillful entrepreneur, poised to bring further success to the field of concert management in his chosen home, a country pinning for a stronger currency, where world-class artists must be cajoled to the journey for the love of the country’s beauty and the musical festivities concocted by this minion of music, have no doubt leavened the breath and breadth of his singular abilities. One who has not lived a life, no matter the veracity of a youthful talent, can bring the most fulsome passions to account.
For Wallick now plays each phrase as a new idea, in the way that a singer’s breath before every phrase carries the emotion of the moment to follow. There is such a sustained joy that beams from this mature artist, confined, as is the fate of the concert pianist, to an angle which shields part of the facial expression from those who beg to share the music. In every flick of the eye, in every wry twist of the corner of his mouth, in every soulful returning to the keys after a moment of aching quiet, this artist invites a conversation. Wallick always has something to say, a thought to elucidate, an emotion to explore, and to refuse his invitation to this dance is to squander talents.
Wallick’s phrasing in Bach’s Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto gave joyous lie to the notion that, in order to imitate the swift changes of registry the saturating shades that the organ can supply by switching from one of its keyboards to another, the experience of his music removed from that sensibility must remember its origin by playing a repeating phrase very softly if it is first sounded sonorously, and vice-versa. Wallick played Bach with a sensuality that can only be realized by giving attention to the tiny, internal phrasings of a larger musical statement. Even when illuminating two note-phrases, his keen sensitivity to the weight of every note gave Bach’s pristine musings a heart-swelling romance.
Conversely, and gloriously, Wallick played Brahms as if he were Bach, giving every surprising turn of the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel a lucidity that would have made Bach’s predecessor, the composer Johann Kuhnau leap for pure love. Once again, it was the studied weight for each individual digital message with which Wallick lead us on this merry dance, always humming the theme while letting Brahms toss his compositional hair about, birthing the chords that would throw the door open to others, a door through which a young Gershwin would one day waltz, that won us the prize.
Albéniz’s Evocación and El Puerto from Iberia, Book 1 gave the program the necessary palate-cleanser, as his folksong-borrowed strains took us to us to a gentle drowsiness, letting the mind wander in that special way that instrumental music can afford, letting personal pictures and moments flicker across our mind’s brow, in step with the heartfelt bubbling.
We were better for the siesta, for up next was Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H. The heretofore warmly calculating, joyfully jocular Wallick brought every eye to the keyboard, as he brought the weight and his truth of this crowd-pleasure to full flower. Here Wallick displayed a different kind of passion than we had heard earlier. At times there was a wall of sound that left us breathless, and the clear rapidity of all of the notes of downward scales was so smooth as to sound like a glissando that somehow encompassed the black keys as well. The composer’s Norma fantasy brought the amorousness of the evening to a compositional conclusion, with the technical and emotional glimpses of this artist’s journey for that particular evening restated, then slipping sweetly away into the early evening air.
How is it that Bryan Wallick is no a household name in this country? This can only be the difficulty of continuing a career on an international platform while raising children and musical expectations in South Africa. We must hope that his new professional responsibilities will give his career a greater international attention.
Wallick has received a grant from the Scottsdale Center to create a cross-spectrum musical event, showcasing his personal experience wherein he sees a color with every musical pitch. This ability to experience “two or more sensory experience with one stimuli” is called Synesthesia, and Wallick looks forward to showing his audiences what his mind’s eye embraces as his music speaks to his heart, to share his colors as well as his songs. Shades of Sondheim’s “Color and Light?” Is Wallick putting together his own musical “Chromolume?” For now, we must wait, and continue to dream.
Reviewed by Aaron Hunt
Presented on September 5 at the Ravinia Festival, 418 Sheridan Road, Highland Park
More information about the Ravinia Festival s available at (847) 266-5000, or www.ravinia.org.