Chinese pianist Huiping Cai gave a resounding recital of a varied program at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts on Wednesday afternoon. Produced by the International Music Foundation, these free concerts take place each Wednesday in the domed, Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. Starting at 12:15 pm, the programs are designed to fill the remaining 45 minutes of lunch hour. Performers tend to be younger, emerging artists who are frequently making their Chicago debut.
On Wednesday, 21-year-old Huiping Cai showed off various aspects of a flowing technique in a program featuring music by Romantic and early 20th Century composers. For such a young artist, she had a very dignified, mature approach. Sitting on the piano bench, she basked in the quiet, post-applause moments before launching into each piece.
First up was Sonatine, an early, three-movement work by French composer Maurice Ravel written between 1903 and 1905. This piece is very typical of Ravel’s impressionistic style. While scored in f-sharp minor, its actual tonality is remote, flirting with pentatonic sounds. This music is more finesse and less in your face. An excellent performance requires a mixture of delicate touch and purposeful action to allow the harmonies to gel and rhythms to shift.
Cai delivered. From the opening notes of Modéré, she carefully rendered the airy sensitivity in this moderately paced music. She created excellent contrast between the quieter passages and those that are livelier. She kept of the same basic feel with Movement de Menuet, a slightly faster piece in waltz time. As its name suggests, the finale, Animé, offers a bit more animation, and Cai reproduced it while staying restrained, seamlessly shifting back and forth between three and five beats per measure.
Up next were two pieces by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist, composer and politician who straddled the 20th Century. Au Soir and Caprice-Valse, from the composer’s op. 10 set of solo piano miniatures, allowed Cai to show a lighter, playful side with excellent technique, as evidenced in the perfectly reproduced runs in the second piece.
Contrast to this lighter, frolicking fare was provided by Frederic Chopin’s weighty and intense masterpiece, Piano Sonata no. 2 in b-flat minor, op. 35. The two opening movements, both of which offer dramatic shifts between muscular intensity and quieter introspection, give way to the famous funeral march. The work ends with a quick movement intended to mimic the breeze over the grave.
Cai demonstrated powerful technique in the Chopin, a bit too much in the fast beginning, as the melody got subsumed by the roiling accompaniment. But the secondary theme offered a perfect opportunity for Cai to break up the intense power with moments of quieter passion. This was even more on display in the second movement, a scherzo, where the powerful chords of the main section give way to a beautiful middle section that had the aura of a dream. For the funeral march, Cai’s performance skillfully avoided a sense of plodding that such movements can engender. She kept it interesting through the shifting levels of contemplation.
Next Wednesday the Hessler Duo will be performing music for piano and violin by Brahms, Joachim, and Debussy at the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, August 7, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St, Chicago, 12:15 pm. Get there early to get a good seat. All concerts are simultaneously broadcast on WFMT, with a video feed on WFMT’s Facebook page. Huiping Cai’s performance can be viewed here.