"Small" Pianist delivers "Huge" recital at re-named Church

By Richard Lynde
Peninsula Reviews
November 12, 2013

Last Sunday, the Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series continued its 29th season with a most unusual piano recital of the work of obscure Catalonian composer Federico Mompou (born in Barcelona in 1893 and died there in 1987), performed by Haskell Small, Chairman of Piano at the Washington, D.C. Conservatory of Music. This vigorous exponent of unknown music was about in the middle of his “Journeys in Silence” tour, taking in fourteen identical recitals in six states.  He gave us a perfect version of Mompou’s four volumes of Musica Callada (‘quiet’ or ‘silent’ music), as he strung together the 28 little pearls on a golden chain, in about an hour, works composed from around 1959-74, with frequent revisions.

Unlike program music (think Schumann’s “Happy Farmer” or Debussy’s “Maiden with the Flaxen Hair)” Federico Mompou wished to convey “the sounds of silence” (think Simon & Garfunkel) into the listener’s imagination. Our pianist told the audience that he had changed his designation of “meditation” (empty/clear mind) to that of “contemplation” (an actual scene), such as provided by his inspiration: the 16th century St. John of the Cross, Spain’s “first lyric poet.” During the brief intermission, when only the performer arose to stretch his legs, the Distinguished Artists’ Director, John Orlando, read to us the text “Return my Dove,” this bird also being the Holy Spirit, so that natural objects took on spiritual meaning.

Indeed, the overall effect of this mostly very quiet music was one of deep mysticism, an underlying belief in the power of God in Nature. While there were a few, brief, violent outbursts from the keyboard, most of the expression was of the childlike and profound. As pianist Small noted, frequent bell-like sounds would appear in this mostly simple “intermediate” writing. But what a far cry from the “The Bell of the Afternoon” of fellow Spanish composer Granados, which is easy to read, learn and put across to an audience.

Those of us in attendance last Sunday afternoon may have been missing barbecues and ballgames on TV. However, I think we all came away from this very quiet experience (in which the pianist dissolved into the music himself and physically became only the transmitter of Mompou’s mysticism), with a very noticeable, if ineffable, contact “high” as we left the church, formerly the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz, but now renamed the “Peace United Church of Christ,” an interesting coincidence with our program.

And while the big, beautiful Yamaha CFX flagship concert grand is almost supernaturally easy to play (this writer tried it out briefly along with many others when it was first inaugurated at Cabrillo College), what strung the whimsical, sparse little pieces together so well was the intensity and “rightness” of the interpretation. Especially beguiling was the pedaling here by Haskell Small, every bit as fine as that praised years ago when Walter Gieseking showed how much better Debussy sounded when he played this composer’s work. So it was that the overall effect of “small” (even “tiny little”) pieces by a virtually unknown composer and played for us by a “small” self-effacing pianist became “huge.”

Previous pianists in this series were Tanya Gabrielian, whose performance of a mixed program sounded too relaxed – until her final, snappy Bach encore: and the later Soheil Nasseri, whose immaculately crafted all-Beethoven often lacked enough punch. But Haskell Small, playing this one set combined from an obscure composer, took an enormous risk and succeeded completely (he has already recorded this work). Don’t be surprised if, when we hear him again, and I do hope we will, in a couple more years. Perhaps he will perform some of the works of Bach (in whose work he was medalled in competition), and some of his own compositions, now being recorded, including the 1999 ballet dance score which won him a first prize. But if you can’t wait, visit him on YouTube with Arvo “Part’s sublime “Für Alina,” and add to the 40,000 plus hits. It’s a free encore.

Richard Lynde received an M.A. in 1966, at which time he was an assistant professor of American literature at San Jose State University. He has taught English literature at Gavilan College and Chapman College and in the Pajaro Valley Union School District and at San Benito High in Hollister. Richard is a music lover and piano freak who first started reviewing around 1956 for his school’s weekly newspaper. Now retired, he continues his interests in cooking, gardening, automobiles, music, photography, art and writing. His letters to the editor have been published in national classical piano magazines and twice in the U.S. News and World Report and in Vanity Fair. Recently Richard has written concert reviews for the Register-Pajaronian and currently lives in Watsonville with his cat “Poe,” and over 100 rose bushes.