Janice Weber's Blissful Middle Ground

Pianist covers Liszt, Cage, and Debussy with authority

Bad classical piano performances usually fall into two categories: either the performance is laden with so much unnecessary melodrama and arm-flailing hysteria that it is completely impossible to take seriously, or it is so buttoned-up and stiff that audience members are checking their watches or fast asleep. In order to command the attention and respect of the audience, performers must strike a balance between these extremes. On Tuesday night at Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall, that is exactly what Janice Weber did. Her ambitious program was performed with a professionalism that never reached sterility and a passion that never reached schmaltz—in essence, she made her concert all about the music.

Central to Weber’s successful performance was a brilliantly organized set list. As Weber notes in the program, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth and the 150th anniversary of Claude Debussy’s. “Their legacies changed the course of 20th-century music,” she wrote, “and I am honored to include them in tonight’s program.” Given this homage, it would have seemed likely for Weber to pull from the most well-known pieces of each composer’s canon, but she instead opted to bring out two of the composers’ less prominent works: “Estampes” by Debussy and the piano score for Cage’s ballet “The Seasons.”

Though the program was a tribute to these two legends, there was also another thread running between its selections. Weber bookended the concert with Liszt pieces, opening with “Two Legends” and closing with the legendary “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” As she explained in the notes for the latter, “Liszt’s 200th birthday year has just passed and it is worth noting that, one way or another, every piece on this program can trace its roots to the peerless master.”

The program included pieces by Rachmaninoff and César Franck, both of whom were significantly influenced by Liszt. These selections added further evidence that Weber chose her pieces not only to showcase her talents but also to make a deeper point—in this case, to show the pervasive influence of Liszt throughout his lifetime and far beyond.

Of course, this conceptual framework wouldn’t mean anything if Weber didn’t have the chops and the sensibility to perform the pieces well. In this respect she left almost nothing to be desired. The opener, “Two Legends,” was fast and crisp in its first movement, and in its dark and heavy second movement she made its five simultaneous lines spread out all over the keyboard look like a warm-up. For such a technically challenging piece, Weber was largely devoid of bravado; she swayed with the music and let an occasional smile cross her face, but her aura was one of control rather than of release.

However, Weber’s reserve did not make the performance unexciting or uninteresting. “Estampes” is more informed by visual textures, such as pagodas in Asia and a summer evening in Spain, than it is by emotional experiences. She took some risks in her rendition, pushing and pulling the tempo in ways that in excess would have weakened Debussy’s impressionistic intentions. And her performance of César Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue” was anything but reserved; she played with a romantic intensity fitting for the time period in which the piece was written.

John Cage’s discordant ballet “The Seasons” was perhaps the program’s riskiest item. The piece, like all Cage, is cerebral in its construction. The length of the nine movements are proportioned in the same ratio as the piece’s internal rhythmic patterns: 2-2-1-3-2-4-1-3-1. In addition to being rhythmically awkward, the piece is harmonically bizarre and could have easily alienated the audience. But Weber played with such grace and motion to make it danceable, which is quite a feat considering its rhythmic and harmonic irregularities.

Weber closed with a virtuosic flourish. In Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme by Corelli,” she wandered through its 20 variations with focus and incredible technical proficiency. And in the finale, “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” she brought a lightness and a subtlety that too often are absent from musicians who look at Liszt and see only weight and bombast.

Weber’s concert was equal parts maturity and passion, thought and emotion, restraint and release. As she played, it became apparent that her body language was merely in reaction to the music produced by her hands—she didn’t need to exaggerate her movements or her expression in order to show the audience what it was supposed to be feeling. She let the music speak for her.

—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at matthewwatson@college.harvard.edu.

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