John Frayne | UI professor impresses at piano recital

John Frayne | UI professor impresses at piano recital

Rochelle Sennet, asssociate professor of piano in the University of Illinois School of Music, gave a highly enjoyable recital on March 29 in Krannert's Foellinger Great Hall of music ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to contemporary composer James Lee III.

The program opened with Bach's "English Suite" No. 4 in F Major, BWV 809.

Well you might ask why a suite containing the names of five dances with French names should be called "English"! No one seems to know, but a manuscript exists of Bach's six "English" suites with a note saying, in French, "Written for the English."

In Suite No. 4, a wealth of musical lines for right and left hands meet in a challenging but fruitful pattern. Professor Sennet played this music with admirable clarity, meeting its contrapuntal challenges with resolute daring. Sennet went with polished ease from the noble Sarabande movement to the glittering Menuet section and then to the leaping and rocking interplay of voices in the final Gigue.

Much of Bach's keyboard music seems to me impersonal in that I do not feel that Bach is evolving his personal psychodrama in one of his fugues. But there was a world of difference in Sennet's second choice at her recital. It was Franz Liszt's 17-minute work "Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude," S. 173 ("Blessing of God in the Wilderness.")

The title comes from a poem by the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, who also gave a title to Liszt's famous tone poem, "Les Preludes."

This moody, inward and highly personal work opens up imaginative vistas of sights and emotions that evolve in a free-floating pattern, and Sennet played this emotionally charged piece in the grand romantic manner.

Liszt, the paragon of a subjective age, followed wherever his sensibility took him, and he seemed at times to have had little sense of when enough was enough. The music seems to come to a close, but Liszt had more to say, and Sennet admirably kept the tension at a high level to the work's luxuriant end.

I cannot remember hearing this work before at a concert, and I found it one of Liszt's most affecting piano works.

Sennet takes a strong interest in the works of African American composers. On this program she played a work by James Lee III, who was born in Michigan in 1975, earned advanced degrees in composition at the University of Michigan, and teaches in Baltimore, Md.

His 2012 piano suite "Souls of Alkebulan" has five movements which, in Lee's words, "would display imagined African rhythms and memories from Africa's past."

"Alkebulan" is the old indigenous name for Africa, and translations of this name vary from "Cradle of Civilization" to "Land of the Blacks," to "Mother of Mankind."

The opening movement, "Vitality of Kemet," evokes the splendors and vitality of ancient Egypt. The following movement, "Memories of Axum," is associated with the ancient empire of Axum in northern Ethiopia. "Heart of Kalimba," with its perky theme, is meant to resemble the sound of the thumb piano.

In the lyrical section "Lost Treasures," Lee pictures Africa stripped of its wealth, both material and human. The final "Warrior Dance" was explosive in its whirlwind of rhythms.

At the piano, Sennet played with evident sympathy and idiomatic grace this fascinating suite.

The concert closed with Liszt's piano "paraphrase" of the "Love Death" from Richard Wagner's music drama "Tristan and Isolde." The resemblance of this "Love Death" to the earlier played "Bénédiction" was notable, and as in the Liszt piece, Sennet managed Wagner's emotional climax with forceful playing, which reflected the splendors of the original, thereby ending a fine recital.

A fine presentation. Arriving early for the concert on Thursday evening, I was able to enjoy the conclusion of an elaborate presentation, in the Krannert lobby called "Making Sacred All the Whispers of the World, a Performance of Jewish Cabaret Music by the New Budapest Orpheum Society," a group active at the University of Chicago.

This exploration of various cabaret styles, reflecting the musical expression of Jews living in the shadow of the Holocaust, covered a variety of songs in Russian, Yiddish, German, Czech, English and Hebrew. The program booklet was a linguist's banquet!

I particularly enjoyed Isadore Lillian's satirical song, sung with humorous gusto by Stewart Figa, "Dos reydele dreyt zikh" ("The Wheel Spins") in which I caught the phrase "meshugene velt" ("crazy world").

The last group, from a 1938 collection called "Songs of the Pioneers," was admirably sung by Julia Bentley.

The titles, translated from the Hebrew, were "We Beheld Our Toil," by Stefan Wolpe and Levi Ben-Amitai, and "There Comes Peace" by Kurt Weill and Nathan Alterman.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

-