Live-streamed solo recitals are nothing new in the era of COVID-19, but most have typically taken place in living rooms and smaller venues. Last Sunday night on Sept. 20, however, Music, Theatre & Dance professor Matthew Bengtson’s live-streamed concert was an unusual exception. The assistant professor of music and piano literature performed “Great Solo Piano Works from my Lifetime” to an empty Stamps Auditorium  — an appropriately grand space for the programmed music.

Bengtson started off the recital with a few opening remarks, the most salient point being that all the programmed music was written after World War II, with the most recent piece written in 2003. However, he said, the concert was not a “new music” concert. In many classical conservatory settings, any music written after World War II usually counts as “new music,” from degree auditions to jury requirements. Bengtson, a fervent early and contemporary music enthusiast, disagrees with this concept — “new music,” he argued, is music that is happening now. Music that was written as far back as fifty years ago is no longer new. The concert highlighted some well-known and some more obscure solo piano pieces by George Walker, Henri Dutilleux and Lukas Foss and Music, Theatre & Dance composition professor Paul Schoenfeld. 

The first piece was Schoenfeld’s 1997 “Peccadilloes,” which consisted of six movements, many of which were greatly influenced by J.S. Bach. The contrapuntal harmonies in the first, third and fifth movements especially suggested characteristics from Bach’s fugues and toccatas. The piece as a whole was one highly representative of Schoenfeld’s music, which is known to incorporate sound blends of classical, folk and popular genres. While the sound quality over the live-stream was less than ideal, Bengtson’s intelligent attention to melodic subject lines and color interpretation shone through. 

The second piece, George Walker’s 2003 “Fifth Piano Sonata,” was a highly substantive one that Bengtson played with great power and control. Before beginning, Bengtson described the piece as a sonata that should be recognized among the greats as one with profound “rhythmic muscle and nothing for special effect.” He compared the piece to the sonatas of Brahms and Beethoven. The sonata was chordally dense and rife with dissonances, yet very lyrical with an unforgettably haunting opening and main theme. The whole piece was surprisingly very short – a total of only five and a half minutes, which effectively added to its tempestuous drama.

The final two pieces, Dutilleux’s Three Preludes for Piano (1973-88) and Lukas Foss’s 1981 “Solo” were the most tonally distinct, utilizing atonal and 12-tone compositional techniques. The Dutilleux was transcendent — the piece emphasized the piano’s resonance to create formal continuity within the second prelude and used the full range of the keys. The Foss was, as Bengtson described, “very humorous,” with an intriguing style hybrid of minimalist and 12-tone approaches. The piece very clearly had several voices that seemed to “talk” all at once. The very beginning began with a single voice that came across as possibly telling a joke to the audience but was abruptly interrupted, which happened successively until more and more voices were introduced, breaking into a final wild frenzy. 

The concert was a refreshing start to the new academic year for the music school, especially the piano department, given Bengtson’s creative repertoire choices and meticulous execution. The presentation, too, was a welcome concert vision that will hopefully be carried out further in the months to come. 

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