CHARLES WHITEHEAD MAKES A SPLENDID CARNEGIE HALL DEBUT
Charles Whitehead’s piano recital at Weill Recital Hall on Saturday, November 18 at 2:00 PM was well attended and those present were treated to a remarkable performance of some of the most challenging works in the repertoire. Works by Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, and Stravinsky were featured.
Projecting narrative in the course of a musical performance can be a challenge. This is especially true when the technical demands of the works in question rise to dizzying levels of distraction. Indeed, in such cases, the mere delivery of pitches and rhythms can become the issue of the narrative in and of themselves. In such cases, unfortunately, the composer’s central message and any more universally appealing topoi are lost in the details of the pyrotechnic display.
Whitehead did a masterful job of creative narrative in each individual movement, work, and over the course of the entire recital. The second of Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (Op. 946) is an emotional outpouring as the prematurely wizened composer was to face death soon after its completion. The performer brilliantly captured the joys and sorrows of Schubert’s testimony. Each episode was delivered and subsequently recalled with careful and identifiable nuance. When the returns came they reflected the different points in the journey as surely as an individual sees the same things in different ways as they journey through life. Whitehead’s interpretation served as an introduction to the journey yet to be traversed that afternoon.
The programming of Robert Schumann’s Fantasie (Op. 17) next was a masterstroke. We leave Schubert’s reflections and focus in upon a tempestuous episode in Schumann’s life (it seems, of course, that these are the only types of Schumann episodes we recall). At age twenty-six, the composer is full of manic passions that are vented through the work. The technical challenges seem to be Schumann’s way of working through problems – real and imagined. Whitehead was technically impressive but his interpretation went beyond the solving of the aforementioned problems. The pianist was able to convey the abiding humanity of the man himself and the bittersweet joy of one reveling in misery.
After the intermission Whitehead performed a Waltz (Op. 70, No. 1), a Nocturne (Op. 55, No. 1) and a Mazurka (Op. 24, No. 4) by Chopin. Written around the same time as the Schumann’s Fantasie, these works, in total, cover as broad a musical and expressive range. But, while Schumann’s is a motion picture, the Chopin works are each pages from a photo album. Whitehead changed affect as appropriate to each of the three respective works. He took a moment between each to “change faces”. Each was given its own character through the careful control of timbre and articulation.
When the work ends the narrative has not been moved forward as much as it has been broadened with a more considered, less impulsive, reflection upon this point in the journey.
Étude D’Exécution Transcendante, “Feux Follets” by Liszt and Étudepour les Quartes by Debussy were programmed next as a pair. This seemed odd, at first, in the context of the narrative but there is a certain sense to each composer in mid-life (Debussy was to die at a
much younger age than did Liszt) exploring art through the medium of the etude. These are far more than study pieces of course. Liszt and Debussy (quite overtly) are considering the limits of the instrument and using all they have learned thus far to do so. It is that point in the artist’s life where they are at the height of their powers and testing limits. These works tested the performer as well. During the Liszt was the only time where Whitehead allowed the music to “play him”. It happened several times, but only for a moment here and there. It was supremely intriguing to watch the wrestling match between composer and performer at these moments. In the end Whitehead (and, consequently Liszt the composer) won as this contemplation of fireflies ended up being just that. In all their simplicity and all their complexity they, as does this work, represent the grandeur of nature and the mind that has been given the challenge to consider it all.
As Liszt considered the firefly Debussy considers the interval of the 4th. Each is a product of nature (although some would argue the 4th to be a weak and secondary byproduct of the overtone series). Debussy’s work is endlessly organic. He remains amongst the most avant-garde of composers. Whitehead embraced the work as the experiment it is. Here he shared the composer’s “lab notebook” with the audience, seeming to invite us to join him is retracing Debussy’s steps. It was the point in the ongoing, recital-long narrative where the head was given a moment to catch up with the racing heart. The moment of introspection was heartfelt and yet restrained as the, then, fifty-three year-old, composer spoke through the performer.
The program concluded brilliantly with Trois mouvements de Petrouchka by Stravinsky. The selection of this work was perfect as it is an arrangement by the composer of three of the four Tableaux from his ballet composed ten years earlier. Although Stravinsky was only thirty-nine when he wrote the arrangement (twenty-nine when the ballet premiered) there is great narrative power to concluding the program with a work that is, in essence, a reflection upon one’s own creation. This arrangement is a different piece from the ballet as certainly as Schubert’s themes were transformed earlier in the concert. The pianist played these sometimes gratuitously demanding movements with great purpose and a certain feeling of world-weariness appropriate to the subject matter. In the end, however, the overwhelming affect projected was satisfaction for a life well led as well as for a recital well given.
Charles Whitehead acquitted himself as a powerful technician and, more importantly, as a master bard. Two curtain calls later that afternoon’s story reached its fitting end. Bravo!
Reviewed by Dr. Blaise J. Ferrandino
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dr. Blaise J. Ferrandino is a Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Texas Christian University. He can be reached at email@example.com