Review: Amy Wurtz Goes Hybrid–In an Intimate Way

The joys of live music in an intimate setting! Composer/pianist Amy Wurtz hosted American Woman, a livestream, solo recital on YouTube featuring music composed by American women on Sunday night. Since the start of pandemic lockdowns, Wurtz has streamed several concerts from her home-based studio in Rogers Park. This was the first time she took a hybrid approach with a live audience.

The audience, seated on couches, easy chairs, stools, and piano benches around the room’s perimeter, was treated to an evening of chamber music reminiscent of the late 18th century. Of course, back then there were no laptops, tablets, cameras, microphones, electric lights, and other props required for a modern broadcast, but the intimacy was ever present. Adding to the experience was Wurtz' explanations of the music on the program. Providing technical support were her daughters Greta and Elsa.

Amy Wurtz gave a commanding performance Sunday night. Photo by Elsa Bravo-Wurtz.

Wurtz designed the program to highlight solo piano music composed by American women from the past 200 years, but most of the composers are living today. The program gave a very nice contrast between the range of musical styles that have predominated.

First on the program was Spark by Alex Shapiro, who is based in San Juan Island in Washington state. It opened with a flourish of high notes that set an aural fabric for loud chords played on toward the middle of the keyboard. Before long the notes and chords switched hands. After the piece, Wurtz commented that the sounds emulated “waves, outdoor harmonies.” It also featured broken harmonies where the hands played melodic lines of different numbers of notes per measure, say, six against seven.

The second piece, Barcarola Latinoamericana by another living composer Gabriela Lena Frank, opened similarly to the Shapiro, but this time with tremolos creating the aural fabric. As the piece’s title suggests, it explored Latino sounds, such as tango rhythms juxtaposed with a waltz tempo. Wurtz deftly reproduced the different sound requirements and the abrupt silences interspersed throughout.

Amy Wurtz gave insightful explanations of the music she performed. Photo by Trevor Patricia Watkin.

The most challenging work of the evening, at least from an audience perspective, was Unleashed by Chicago based composer Kyong Mee Choi. Wurtz described it as the loudest work on the program, but it might very well have been the loudest thing I’ve ever heard from an unamplified piano. It opened with a couple of quiet notes, and then, CRASH. The rest of the piece explored these sounds, with the crashes shifting back and forth from the upper and lower ends of the keyboard. Constant use of the piano’s damper pedal allowed the crashing sounds to resonate over the quieter material.

Unleashed definitely showed off a Herculean strength that Wurtz needed to make those sounds. While I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear a performance, I would not want to hear it again. I marvel that Wurtz was able to practice it without going crazy.

The only antidote to Unleashed was something bucolic, and Dreaming by 19th century composer Amy Beach did the trick. Beach is considered a romantic composer, and Dreaming shared a similar feel with Etude in E by another romantic composer, Frederic Chopin.

Wurz then gave the world premiere performance of her own composition, No. 7, from an as-yet completed series she’s writing. As with her other music, No. 7 moves seamless between tonal and atonal sounds that blend wonderfully. This particular work has a majestic feel that worked well with Wurtz’ playing.

The night ended with Margaret Bonds’ adaptation of the spiritual Troubled Waters. A Chicago native, this African American composer studied with Florence Price, before moving on to other pastures. It offered a nice conclusion to an enjoyable evening.

A rebroadcast of Sunday’s concert is available here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.