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Critic’s notebook: I was starved for live classical music. A piano teacher’s simple recital becomes a significant moment.

The concert: Andreas Werz, artistic director of the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series at Fresno State, arranged for some of his younger (pre-university) piano students to perform for select audiences recently at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens. It was, in other words, an ordinary American piano recital — a longtime staple of musical life all over the world.

Pictured above: Aidan Purtell, left, with piano teacher Andreas Werz after a concert at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens. Photo: The Munro Review

The big deal: It wasn’t on Zoom. Fifteen months ago, that fact would have been completely unexceptional. (Think about it: Did you even know what Zoom was 15 months ago?) Instead, this was a live performance. A masked, socially distanced audience sat on chairs in Tolladay Hall and listened to performances from five musicians, ages 9 to 16. I got to be in that audience. Oh, and it was live. And not on Zoom. Did I mention that?

The program: From Bartok to Gould, these students tackled some of the toughest classical pieces around. This was not your garden-variety offering of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” We’re talking about finger-pounding unleashings of Rachmaninoff.

The memories: As I sit listening to the music, I am brought back to my own childhood piano-recital days. My piano teacher, Mrs. Shepherd, who lived up the street from me, would corral all her kids once a year into the local Methodist Church, and later the high-school cafeteria, to perform in front of family and friends. Stuffed into dress clothes, we would parade, one by one, up the center aisle for our turn at the keyboard. I remember several things distinctly: 1) I was worried that the moment I sat on the piano bench that my brain would turn to mush and I’d forget every note; 2) I desperately wanted to perform sooner rather than later so I could get it over with; 3) I was fascinated with seeing all of Mrs. Shepherd’s other students — the ones who didn’t take lessons either directly before or after my regular weekly lessons — because I awkwardly didn’t even know some of them; we were like a bunch of managers at a Motel 6 district managers convention who’ve never met each other and then spend the whole time saying “hey” and “nice to meet you” and “is your swimming pool as icky as mine?”; and 4) I sort of rooted for my fellow performers to do well but also hoping that none of them would completely blow me out of the water in terms of skill level. (Which, of course, some did. Obviously. I’m no professional pianist.)


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Back to the present: At this recital, however, it was the cream of the crop performing. There’s Keira Wong, 14, poised and elegant as she plays Bartok’s Suite, Op. 14. Sela Yarbrough, 11, gives us a lively and frisky rendition of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso. Emmanuel Loewenheim, 9, offers sweet interpretations of Bach and Mozart. William Wilson, 16, plays a lovely Chopin nocturne, and then follows that up with another nocturne — that he wrote himself! Impressive.

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The headliner: And then there’s Aidan Purtell, 15, who gets the prestigious opening and closing positions in the concert order. He starts off with a movement from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto in D minor and finds a lushness — a grand musical line — in the midst of the furious onslaught of notes. At one point, it’s hard to believe the potent amount of sound coming just from his right hand. He closes the concert with Morton Gould’s tumultuous “Ghost Waltzes.” Purtell wants to be a concert pianist. He started studying with Werz at age 5 and is now a homeschool student in the Clovis Unified district; he’s in his second year of a planned three-year stint in high school. He has been busy on the young-pianist competition circuit, most recently being named Regional Winner at the 2021 Music Teachers’ Association of California’s Northern California Piano Concerto Competition.

The dedication: Purtell, who will be applying to the top music schools in the country, including Juilliard and USC, practices for five hours a day. And what did you accomplish today?

The (possibly) spiritual moment: This is going to sound a little touched-by-the-light corny, but here goes: The windows in the San Joaquin Gardens hall are well covered by shades, making the room quite dark, but there is a moment caused by the angle of the setting sun bursting through a crack when I’m suddenly speared with an intense shaft of sunlight that hits me directly in the head. If I move forward or backward a few inches, it goes away, but if I keep in position, I feel as if my whole body is bathed in light. The phenomenon only lasts a few minutes or so before the sun moves on, but it’s enough to make it feel like a moment of transcendence. And this is all happening, of course, as I listen to live classical music for the first time in more than 400 days. Just sayin’ …

The takeaway: What a great preview for Keyboard Concerts to come. The season opens on Sept. 19 with piano superstar Garrick Ohlsson. Yes, live concerts will be back. I’m ready.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (3)

  • Kathy Hart

    Great review. Loved it! I remember those recital days where your brain turns to mush and you play the same bars of a Bach fugue over and over because you can’t remember your way out of it. Wish I’d been there—to the concert, not back to piano recital days.
    Kathy

    reply
  • Helen Ashford

    Great review. Been there, done that. Your review was truly a review.

    reply
  • Kay Johnston

    Enjoyed your enlightening review & updates! Thank you

    reply

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