A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
May 7, 2012
07:45 PM
Classically Speaking

Serkin Gives Union Theater Its Last (for now) Curtain Call

Serkin Gives Union Theater Its Last (for now) Curtain Call

How does one close 73 years of truly historic performances? Pianist Peter Serkin was in several ways a perfect choice with which to conclude the musical performances at the Union Theater, the venerable venue which will now close for two years and receive a major renovation.

But however welcome the cosmetic and functional changes may be, the business at hand this past Saturday night called for a performance of gravitas. If its weightiness you want, Serkin is your man: Considered for most of his fifty-plus years on the stage as a thinking person’s musician, he brought the goods and then some to a less than sold-out, but fully rapt, audience.

The first half was short on time (just under forty minutes of music), but long on density. The entire program, in fact, was a re-creation of a recent performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York; pieces by Oliver Knussen, Toru Takemitsu and Charles Wuorinen were followed by one of the true monuments by Beethoven.

Opening the evening was the Variations, Op. 24 of Knussen. The 1989 work is well under ten minutes in length, and Knussen’s gift in this piece is to make six feel like sixty. Serkin’s gift was to bring it to life in a manner that compelled one to pay heed.

Takemitsu’s “Far Away,” co-inspired by a trip to Bali and a reference to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, held more promise on paper…but read better than it sounded. I have heard music of both Knussen and Takemitsu that I like very much, but these two works left me cold.

What fired me up, however, was this re-introduction to Serkin live and in person, after not seeing him on stage for about twenty years; his utter conviction about every note he plays (not to mention the way he plays them!), is rarely equaled by any of his colleagues on any instrument.

Now Wuorinen’s music has an even thornier reputation than the music that preceded it, but his 2011 “Adagio,” written for Serkin and premiered on the aforementioned “Y” concert, was a total surprise. The excellent program note by Perry Allaire prepared one to follow the musical argument from the first bar, and while it was music that still lacked what most listeners would consider a traditional flow, Serkin partnered with Wuorinen to once again make the listeners stay on the edge of their seats.

The second half of the evening was given over to the “Diabelli Variations” of Beethoven. What began as an unwanted toss-off assignment from the publisher, Diabelli, to supply a single variation on his own waltz, grew into a mammoth monument of the piano repertoire.
Beethoven initially dismissed the theme as “cobbler’s work,” but over the next three years penned an extraordinary 33 variations. The program booklet listed every variation with its title/tempo marking, and one was tempted to follow this exquisite scorecard. But even as the odd word or phrase was scribbled in the critic’s notebook, one soon ran out of adjectives meaningful enough to capture what Serkin was producing.
This is music that in some ways transcends even the greatest of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas — the last of which had already been completed.

It would have been enough to close the season, and this chapter, of the Union Theater’s history with a great performance, which was all but guaranteed the moment Serkin was booked. But there was truly a touch of the historic beyond the fact that this was the last recital in the theater as we have known it: Serkin’s father, Rudolf, had also played here, and Peter himself was the first to play the piano he used last Saturday, back in 1993.

For the next two seasons the Union Theater series will continue, principally in Mills Hall. Undoubtedly there will be some more history in the making.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Union Theater.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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