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Review: Joel Fan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —  On Sunday afternoon Joel Fan gave us a wild ride back and forth through the piano literature. Works from Beethoven to the contemporary were offered in very non-chronological order, barely allowing one sensibility to fade before offering up the next.

This carefully and cleverly designed program gave a world tour through music ranging from Turkey and China through the Americas combining well-known works with some nearly unknown pieces.

One of the outstanding players of his generation, Joel Fan has been heard here in Santa Fe, but Sunday’s concert at the Simms Center for the Performing Arts was sponsored by Chamber Music Albuquerque. Pianists often tend to either the lyrical or the rhythmic in their playing. With Fan one is hard pressed to know which tendency comes more easily to him, demonstrating a consummate mastery of both.

Fan is precisely the kind of performer needed to keep the classical music scene alive and vibrant. Not only immensely talented, he is a bundle of infectious energy that cannot help but catch his audience in the net of his enthusiasm.

He established an immediate rapport with verbal comments preceding nearly every piece, conveying not only the nature of each work, but his understanding of its interpretation. The Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 3 he called a “demonic fairy tale for children.” The designation for this one-movement work is Allegro tempestoso, and with pounding strokes of pianistic lightening, Fan indeed brought the work to a tempestuous climax, highlighting Prokofiev’s sparking harmonies.

No. 31 is Beethoven’s penultimate piano sonata written simply to please himself. It is highly introspective eschewing, very possibly intentionally, any immediately outstanding themes or melodies. Depth of feeling not virtuosity is called for, and Fan plays the work with a spiritual reverence that glows hauntingly.

Vocally, he described it as an expression of universal love, mid-way descending into death then glorious resurrection. The rain of descending harmonies in the Allegro molto became exciting twists and turns, changes of mood and direction which seemed simultaneously unusual and perfectly logical.

Turning to the Americas after the break, Fan chose the highly characteristic Choro No. 5 “Alma Brasileira” (Soul of Brazil) by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Somber lyricism gave way to colorful African rhythms in the middle section.

In a program switch Fan chose to play William Bolcolm’s newly written Nine Bagatelles, which he has just recorded. Oddly, these pieces with humorously ironic titles are much more harmonically obtuse than we are used to hearing from Bolcolm. While there were moments of lyricism, his usual melodic sense was almost nowhere to be found.

The opening movement of Chopin’s “Funeral March” sonata was truly a revelation bristling with electric keystrokes. Following the famous funeral melody, the very odd moto perpetuo Presto movement became pure quicksilver.

Easily as much Liszt as it is Verdi, Liszt’s Concert Paraphrase on “Rigoletto” is always a sure-fire showstopper, and here Fan seemed to revel in sheer virtuosity. A vigorous standing ovation brought a wide grin to his face.