On Friday evening, a bit to my surprise, I had the pleasure of sitting virtually at the elbow of pianist Stephen Beus as he performed an intimate recital at the Eugene Piano Academy.
No, Beus isn’t a piano student at Susane Reis’ academy. Rather, he was the featured soloist this weekend for the Oregon Mozart Players’ second concert of their season, performing a Chopin piano concerto Saturday night at Beall Concert Hall. The young pianist – he’s 33 – has played at Carnegie Hall and with orchestras around the world.
But back to that Friday recital. Beus played to perhaps three dozen OMP supporters at the downtown academy, performing a program that included a Mendelssohn sonata, a compelling etude by contemporary Israeli composer Ronn Yedidia, Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, and a flashy rendition of Vladimir Horowitz’ reworking of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, before being joined by Kuo at the keyboard for a high-spirited romp through three of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances.
What made the evening worth writing home about, you might say, was that I found myself seated within touching distance of the keyboard – I could, at any point, have reached out and played a few notes myself – during the performance.
Location turns out to be everything.
Beus’ slender hands, pale as marble, flew effortlessly over the Steinway’s keys. In a talk he had given the day before to students at the University of Oregon, he spoke of a piano he once played that was so good, all he had to do was think the music and it came out. That might be an exaggeration, but it was certainly the impression I got from watching him at close range: The music simply poured from his heart into his hands and out through the piano.
In the quick passages, his fingers moved faster than the eye could see. In light passages, the music sounded as delicate as flowing water; a fortissimo chord, though, caused the floor to shake beneath me.
Finally, that sound: Piano sounds altogether different when you have your head practically stuck under the lid.
Speaking of sound, Saturday’s concert marked the first time I’ve heard the Mozart Players since their move from the Hult Center, with its sketchy acoustics, to the UO’s Beall Hall.
The acoustics at Beall absolutely sparkle, and listening to Beus play the Chopin second piano concerto helped snap me out of some recent doldrums about piano concertos in general, probably born of hearing too many of them at the Hult.
Beus, again, did a superb job at the keyboard. Having first come up in the music world as a winner of piano competitions, he might dismssed, on reading his resume, as simply a dry technician. He is certainly not. Beus has clean technique, of course, but only in the service of a deep, lyrical musicality.
What really made the Chopin so wonderful was the perfect musical exchange between soloist and orchestra. The music flowed from the piano to the strings and back, as if played by a single musician.
Kuo and Beus – both Northwesterners from the eastern side of the Cascades – clearly like each other, and worked very well together as a team. That easy collaboration showed well in their seamless performance together.