Falling Leaves, Rapid Fingers, A Reborn Piano

Sam Black

Just a notion of late October in Duluth on E. Superior Street
Just a notion of late October in Duluth on E. Superior Street

As I crested 26th Ave. E. on Superior Street early this morning, I was amazed at the autumnal view spread out before me. It’s late for this much color, but take it where you can get it. Artists the world over celebrate the changing of leaves during their annual cycle, and for us it is right now, and will be shortly over. 

Fingers plucking the notes like dropping leaves

A few days ago, many of our leaves began the rapid descent. They were flying all over the place, and demanding attention, either by youngsters jumping into piles, or by adults trying to make the piles. In the musical world, fingers were flying as fast as the leaves at the first Matinee Musicale recital of this 118th concert season. Violinist Erin Keefe, energetic concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, was joined by pianist Anna Polonsky, an amazing chamber pianist based in Poughkeepsie, NY. Together they left as many notes on the floor as the trees were dropping on the lawns outside.

They offered a program that was both traditional, and somewhat creative. The Beethoven Sonata No. 6 is about as traditional as one can get. The two artists showed that they have complete control over the literature that basically began back around 1803, as the piano was fortified with steel to fill larger spaces with sound. Johannes Brahms took great advantage of this strengthened piano, and joined his friends Robert Schumann and Albert Dietrich to write a composite sonata for their common violinist friend, Joseph Joachim.

Brahms created the third movement, partially because Brahms was gifted at multiple rhythms and had several ‘scherzo’ pieces already out in the world for artists to perform. This lively movement showed the power that both Keefe and Polonsky would share as the evening progressed.
Musical highlights of the evening were the Five Melodies by Sergei Prokofiev and the suite, From My Homeland, by Bedrich Smetana. These are underplayed pieces on the recital scene, and a very fresh respite from the world of more traditional composers. Each of the five songs without words by Prokofiev were sentimental and brilliant, giving both the pianist and the violinist to communicate as partners as well as individuals. The two very nostalgic (Czech) pieces by Smetana would make anyone long for some distant homeland. Beautiful melodies, rich harmonies, and very sonorous playing from both artists.

Finally, the first violin sonata by Camille Saint-Saens blew the top off the program. This 1885 composition is incredibly demanding for both performers, from the opening dark energy to the brilliant finish with fireworks and carillons bursting all over the room. Keefe was amazingly dextrous and bowed with great power as this piece unfolded. Polonsky was beyond belief at times, as she played multiple notes with all ten fingers (or more) at speeds that deserved arrest by the highway patrol. 

Erin Keefe, violin, Anna Polonsky, piano - Matinee Musicale 2017
Erin Keefe, violin, Anna Polonsky, piano - Matinee Musicale 2017

One Steinway piano,1893 to 2017

Part of my excitement of the evening was hearing the rebuilt 1893 Steinway piano on the Mitchell Auditorium stage at The College of St. Scholastica for the first time. Fourteen years ago I played on this ordinary looking concert piano, and enjoyed the rich sound it produced. This past September it has been returned to Scholastica by Joel Lidstrom to its original mahogany finish, and the insides of the piano have been rebuilt. Now it needs to be played heavily to bring it back into prime condition. This piano made the evening wonderful, since there was a rich balance of sound from top to bottom, and this tonal beauty is not readily available around the Duluth community. Even though the behavior of the piano was mushy and stiff at the moment, Polonsky was able to wrap her fingers around the notes with unbelievable quickness. I was there watching, and the effect was much more beautiful than I have heard in Duluth the past couple of decades. I look forward to playing and hearing this piano more, and watching it get modified as it gets broken in by multiple players in the coming months.