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A tour de force by Lise de la Salle

Anyone who has met Alexander Tutunov or heard him speak would quickly understand that he is a person with a servant’s heart for music. His bashful manner is at odds with his major artistic talent, one which serves him and the Rogue Valley well, since he seems to have the most extraordinary network of performing artists at his fingertips.

Dr. Tutunov arrived onstage Tuesday to open the opening concert of the annual Tutunov Piano Series with his usual curtain speech, albeit being pushed in a wheelchair. He proclaimed that he was woozy from his pain medication and had clearly fractured his right leg. Since no reason was given for this injury, we speculate that it might have been as a result of attempting Schumann’s Toccata in C Major. Nevertheless, he insisted on being present for opening night. This is the type of commitment that we have seen again and again from Tutunov in his determination to provide an incubator for quality piano performance in Ashland, and he is owed a debt of gratitude for his tenacity.

The current season of the Tutunov Piano Series has been covered in some detail in this column, and the first night of music was an extraordinary one, with a performance of Mozart, Faure and Prokofiev from a prominent figure on the international piano scene, the French wunderkind Lise de la Salle. She opened the evening with Mozart’s unfinished “Fantasia in D Minor,” a flirtatious and flowing masterwork of great popularity, which was delivered by de la Salle rather impatiently, as though she were warming up for the remainder of the program. Despite the impression of being in a slight rush, the artist still delivered an outstanding rendition of a challenging piece, with tempo and key changes abounding and a particularly cheerful allegretto.

The Mozart “Rondo in D Major” followed, in a crisply executed rendition of a popular and deceptively uncomplicated piece. The dulcet, ear-pleasing work has a buoyant quality that seems to correlate well with de la Salle’s particular style of performance. Informed listeners will notice qualities reminiscent of Mozart’s later chamber music compositions combined with an organizational formula that anchors the performance and belies the impression of frivolity and brightness with which the composer imbues the piece. De la Salle settled into the performance well, with a deft and delightful approach.

An additional Rondo was programmed but not performed, as the pianist felt the program would be more balanced without it. The banished piece was the Mozart “Rondo in A Minor, K. 511,” which was described in the program as “late Mozart on steroids.” Insufficiently brawny, it would seem, to have survived the creative dispositions of the waif-like de la Salle.

Mozart’s “Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman,’ K, 265” followed. Dan Rather famously noted that an intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” of Rossini and not think of The Lone Ranger. So too is the case with this Variation, wherein most anyone in the audience would instantly think of the famous English lullaby, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” apparently lifted wholesale from Mozart after his death by an unruly mob of British lyricists with a cavalier approach to the limits of public domain. The performance was elegant and approachable and de la Salle shone once again.

A series of three elegant “Barcarolles” by Gabriel Faure followed prior to intermission, a tuneful and virile end to the first half of the concert.

De la Salle returned after intermission to speak at some length about the second half, which exclusively featured Sergei Prokofiev’s “Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, op. 75” from 1937. Each section, according to de la Salle, deals with a moment in the romantic evolution of the star-crossed lovers in question. Opening with a simple “Folk Dance,” and a street scene (“The Street Awakens”), the action continues with a minuet entitled “The Arrival of the Guests” before meeting up with “Juliet as a Young Girl” and continuing to “Masques” and “Montague and Capulets,” both popular and easily recognizable tunes of some intensity. The 10 pieces continued with a nuanced nod to characters in the Shakespeare play, including “Friar Laurence,” a gentle and regal piece that elegantly characterizes the monk, and “Mercutio,” a rapid and tumbling homage to Romeo’s quirky and loyal friend. It was particularly delightful that de la Salle should choose this particular Prokofiev considering the town in which she was performing.

After a robust standing ovation, de la Salle returned to the stage for a Rachmaninoff encore, a cheeky nod to her abilities as a seasoned performer who still has energy on reserve at the end of a long night of music.

The Tutunov Series will continue through May 10 at the Music Recital Hall at the Oregon Center for the Arts, Southern Oregon University, 491 South Mountain Ave. in Ashland. Tickets can be found at oca.sou.edu/event/tutunov-piano-package-2018.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Lise de la Salle