Monday, November 12, 2012

Shirley Harrison performs Balakirev with virtuosity and musicality

This past week, Shirley Harrison performed a concert dedicated exclusively to the works of Mily Balakirev from his gentle Berceuse to the wildly virtuosic Islamey. This performance marks the first public performance by Harrison in some ten or more years. A graduate of the University of Nebraska (Bachelor of Music) and Ohio State University (Master of Music), Harrison has 53 years of teaching experience.

It was many years ago that Harrison first practiced Islamey: an Oriental Fantasy, and once she mastered the piece, she continued to keep it on the tip of her fingers. When written, Islamey was considered “the hardest nine minutes ever written for piano” and Harrison makes it look like second nature to her.
The program opened, however, not with Islamey, but with Balakirev’s Piano Sonata in B Flat Minor No. 2. Balakirev, a Russian nationalist, has four movements similar to many traditional sonatas, but, according to the program notes taken from Hyperion, “traditional form is not followed…The finale is the most virtuosic; yet in his attempt to get away from the Austro-German example of Sonata-writing, even now Balakirev seeks a winded-down and peaceful conclusion.” In this piece, Harrison exhibited a finesse of phrasing and excellent voicing–a joy to listen to for all the audience.
Following intermission, Harrison performed shorter works of Balakirev, including his Berceuse, of which Balakirev had written:
“Loving mother sings, calming down her son. The child falls asleep, but frightened by a terrible dream, he awakes crying. Mother again sings her song and the child falls asleep, lulled by the wonderful dream: he sees golden moths, flying with the accompaniment of silver hand bells.”
The grand finale of the concert program was, appropriately enough, Islamey, that majestic, delightful example of virtuosity. Not only did Harrison have a firm grasp of the technical aspects of the piece, but, what is perhaps even more important, she kept the musicality of the piece. Oftentimes, performers of virtuosic pieces get caught up in the notes and lose the music; not so with Harrison’s performance. Islamey was a beautiful example of technique serving the music, and not vice versa.
Harrison may be performing more concerts in the future—and everyone who had the privilege of hearing this week’s performance are hoping that they have the opportunity to hear her often again!