The Solo Piano Music of Paul Bowles in Concert
Andrey Kasparov & Oksana Lutsyshyn
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Virginia Beach, November 3, 2013
Review by John Campbell
An enlightening experience for listeners interested in the piano music of Paul Bowles was given by Andrey Kasparov and Oksana Lutsyshyn in a Sunday evening concert in Virginia Beach. Both an inspired composer and a creative writer, Paul Bowles is an enigma. In 1972 fellow American composer Ned Rorem (b. 1923) described Bowles' music as being nostalgic, witty and wearing its heart on its sleeve and his prose as cruel, dark and utterly impersonal. In 2000 Rorem revised this glib assessment (which had become a label) that on a deeper level the music is mean and sarcastic while the stories are from a frustrated heart crying to be loved. I find his statements overly grand and misleading. Listening to the music or reading Bowles for your own reaction is the only way to know him. This concert offered us the opportunity to hear his music.
Prior to the Bowles concert I had heard several CDs with a few piano pieces on each. This is where Invencia Piano Duo enters the picture. After the Duo's successful 4-CD set of Complete Piano Works for Piano Duet and Duo of Florent Schmitt, having developed a relationship with NAXOS, they proposed a new project - the Complete Piano Works of Paul Bowles.
This CD is much needed and will be released in 2016. I had also read a number of Bowles' short stories and concluded that Bowles writes with a reporter's eye. Many of the stories are of cruel and dark subjects but they leave the reader free to feel what they experience through his writings; he does not manipulate the reader for a preconceived emotional response.
Bowles loved to travel and to explore the local music wherever he visited and this informs what he composed, like a chameleon who takes on the color of wherever he is. Bowles in adolescence discovered automatic writing (1927). Though he studied with Aaron Copland, he was not motivated to pursue academic music or instruction beyond the basics and reflected the musical light he found in his travels. He offers a showcase of assimilated music of other cultures—many of them in Latin America. And all of this before world music was a category!
Oksana Lutsyshyn opened the program with El Indio (1941) with complex rhythms from what the pianists described "as a treasure-trove of music by Bowles.” The quiet, slow mood that opened Orosi (1948) was in contrast. Bowles said “Orosí is a village in the valley of Costa Rica. When I was living in Guanacaste, the cowboys on the ranch were building a marimba using bamboo and gourds. When it was finished they spent each afternoon working obsessively on an accompaniment for an unstated melody. The memory of that dogged accompaniment dictates the dance section of Orosí." He added a waltz-like melody with complex rhythms. The southwestern cowboy tune of Sayula (1946), named for a town in Calisto, has an abrupt ending. Ms. Lutsyshyn concluded the set with La Cuelga (1943). The title means a birthday present in Spanish and was Bowles' gift dedicated to Leonard Bernstein for his twenty-fifth birthday.
Six Preludes brought Andrey Kasparov to the piano. In these French-flavored American pieces written over a decade while living in Los Angeles and New York, Bowles offers reminiscences of his time in France. Each piece offers something new. Tranquillo (1938) is moody and nostalgic while Grazioso (1945) is fast moving. Things shift so quickly that you must be alert or you will miss the mood he offers. III. Stately (1943) is exacatly that. IV. Allegro (1934) struts like something by Gershwin. V. Allegro (1936) has a pop-music blues riff and repeated variations. VI. ♩ = 54 (1944), is so very gentle and beguiling.
Bowles says in a letter in August 1939: “I have been setting folk music for months. Assez [enough].” Ms. Lutsyshyn returned to the piano in seven Folk Preludes, one—Ching a Ring Chaw—was later set by Copland for voice and is frightfully fast and brief. The perfectly shaped structure of Peter Gray is a mournful, dirge-like tale and Oh! Potatoes They Grow Small Over There is also dark and about famine. Kentucky Moonshiner is about an alcoholic who will never overcome his habit. On the bright side, Whar Did You Cum From is a dance tune and Ole Tare River is a hoedown. Cape Ann is hymn-like but with energy.
In January, 1933 from a hotel in Laghouat, Algeria, Bowles wrote a desperate, long letter to Aaron Copland. In a list of his recent music he included his Sonatina (1932-33). Fifty-five years later he wrote to Bennett Learner from Tangier, thanking him for preparing the Sonatina for performance: “Your suggestions are valid..." The first of three movements, Allegro ritmico, sounds like a satire on Germanic style. It skips from one tempo to another and ends quickly. A singing, legato Andante cantabile develops an unsettling urgency though the pacing is calm and steady. The concluding Allegro movement was a loud and fast contrast to the movement before. Great pianism was required and Kasparov delivered.
Two Portraits of K.M.C (1934) and B.A.M. (1935) followed. Bowles had met the American Kay Katherine Cowen in Paris and portrayed her in precise, French-flavored music. Their friendship continued in America. His friendship with Bruce Morrisette began at the University of Virginia and letters to him began in 1928 and continued to 1940. Portrait of B.A.M. has a loose, open feeling played well by Ms. Lutsyshyn.
She followed with Portrait of Five (1935). In a letter dated April, 1935, Bowles wrote to Morrisette “Just composed and haven’t written [out] yet a composite portrait of Virgil [Thompson] smiling sweetly, Aaron [Copland] remembering the World, Roger [Sessions] looking careful and honest, George Antheil in a hurry to go, and Israel Citkowitz being as pleasant as he can be. It passes from one to the other.” Played without pause, the piece began softly but later developed a devouring energy. High treble notes paired with bass notes made a strong impression. Another musical portrait, Constance Askew in the Garden (1935) has a relaxed feminine, happy energy.
4 Miniatures were separate compositions. The first written for a Paris friend’s eight-year-old son, Prélude pour Bernard Suarès (1932). II. Reverie (1932), with a walking rhythm is followed by III. Portrait of K.M.C. (Katherine Cowen) (1934) and IV. Sarabande (1943) with rich, sonorous harmonies. In a bit over four minutes the set is aphoristic, offering much musical pleasure, briefly.
Dance, taken from a Zarzuela, The Wind Remains (1941), was premiered by a youthful unknown, Leonard Bernstein, at the Museum of Modern Art and danced by choreoprapher Merce Cunningham with a fragmented text drawn from Lorca’s poetry. In the piano alone he creates a charming, dreamlike, anti-dramatic fantasy. Here it was paired with a dance piece, Apotheosis (a dance for Welland Lathrop)(1946), which is somber and probing. Tamanar is a musical portrait of a Moroccan village that called forth in Bowles a severe piece in a dischordant musical language that brightens as if someone opened a window after a storm.
Ms. Oksana Lutsyshyn played Sonata Fragmentaria (1933). The piece opens with an Adagio misterioso movement that holds back, then becomes fast and free. The Allegro movement, with lots of quick notes was followed by another Adagio movement with a very meditative beginning. There is a moment of intensity, only to return to the quiet opening.
Many unpublished works were included in the recital, including the preludes Impasse de Tombouctou (Dead End of Timbuktu) (1934), titled after a dead-end street in the quaint medieval town Thiviers in southwestern France and Theseus and Maldoror (Theseus and Evil) (1933). The pieces offered two attempts to get through the labyrinth of life.
Bowles often reconfigured pieces in new groupings. Following that precedent Kasparov played seven Latin pieces describing landscapes/places as the final set. To quote Bowles “The Huapango was originally a dance form native to the provinces of Tamaulipas and Vera Cruz in Mexico. It was danced on a table-like board with the dancer’s feet sharply accenting the rhythm. “My Huapango No. 1 (1937) uses actual folk material…” Kasparov's playing was fast, glittering and brilliant. Café Sin Nombre (1933) by contrast was quiet and moody. El Bejuco (1943) (Morning Glory) is the name of a primitive village hidden away by dense foliage near Acapulco. Bowles visited there in 1940. Guayanilla (1933) offers music in the mood of a soft, warm rain that enfolds the listener. An urgency comes, then melts away in this personal favorite of mine.
Iquitos (Tierra Mojada) (Dead Earth) (1947) is a rhythmic romp, with fiery playing with a sweet mid-section, but alas, it’s fast and short. Tricky rhythms abound in Carretera de Estepona (The Highway to Estepona) (1939) where Franco’s troops first met resistance in the Spanish civil war, c. 1939. It is brilliant—a frightening, high-speed trip. The set concluded with Huapango No. 2 (El Sol) (1937). The pianist is totally warmed-up and uses all of this heat to give a blistering performance. There is a dark feeling of madly rushing through life.
If you came to hear charming music only, your expectations were not met, no matter what Ned Rorem said about Bowles’ music. Here was an all-American composer. Bowles always wrote music that is extremely listenable—delightful, intriguing and wonderfully sonorous. He went to live in Morocco but did not stop composing after 1947 but his intense engagement with music ebbed significantly. (Lauçanno, lecture at ODU).
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