By Wendy Watkins
When we look up into the night sky and consider the stars, it's not the distance between them, or the gravity that holds them in place that awes us, it is the wonder of being a part of a transcendent experience.
On Monday night, a packed house of lucky concertgoers was transported beyond the realm of ordinary music when Charlie Albright stepped out onto the M-CHS stage and delivered a stellar performance. Together we luxuriated in the incandescence of a musical intelligence that entertained, educated, uplifted and enlightened.
From the first bell-like notes of a Schubert Impromptu to the four short but technically fierce Chopin Etudes (Opus 25, Nos. 1,2,3,and 12), a Liszt transcription of a Puccini violin concerto, and another wildly difficult transcription by Schula-Evler of Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz, there was an exceptionalism that went beyond technical proficiency or musical interpretation.
Indeed, to critique his breathtaking agility and depth at the piano would be to miss the greater point of his performance. His entire program was a whole, living breathing organism that made it impossible to separate artist from art or from the instrument upon which it was crafted.
Albright did not play on the piano. He was the piano. He submerged himself in his music so that by the end of each piece it was as if he was coming to the surface of some inner ocean for air. It was a wonder to behold.
Albright, an avowed lover of movie themes, played a poignant improvisation on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” early in the show and in the second half beguiled us with another original arrangement of “The Mission” movie theme combined with a famous Puccini aria, Nessun Dorma. Ephemeral and expressive, the two melodies intertwined like lovers. Albright fostered a warm intimacy with his listeners both through his music and his words.
Fresh from concerts in Edmonton, Canada, and Seoul, South Korea, Albright is now touring the central United States, where he will perform 63 concerts in 18 states, driving over 11,000 miles as he travels from town to town. In his Southwest circuit, he will deliver five concerts in La Junta, Gallup, Cortez, Cañon City and Fort Morgan in seven days. He will wrap up his tour by completing his all-Schubert cycle at the Gardner Museum in Boston followed by additional appearances in Vancouver, B.C., Ohio and Illinois. Such a schedule demands from its performer huge reserves of stamina and vigor, as well as a laser-like sense of purpose. Albright appears to be in possession of all three qualities.
Although he has played extensively on the world stage, won numerous international competitions and collaborated with luminaries such as Yo-Yo Ma, Albright lacked even a hint of arrogance or condescension. Friendly, talkative and sincere, he spoke between numbers explaining what was to come, what to listen for and why it was meaningful. He demystified the more classic pieces, and varied his program to suit all tastes without ever “playing down” to his audience. He held nothing back for himself. He gave it all away.
Earlier in the day, in an event sponsored by a grant from the Ballantine Foundation, Albright reached out to local students when he played for an auditorium full of spirited, but respectful high-schoolers. He opened with a flashy transcription of Mozart's famous Turkish Rondo and linked it to the Tom and Jerry cartoon series which, according to a show of hands, was familiar to nearly everyone. This version was so muscular and athletic that it left Albright short of breath afterwards and the young audience whooping in unbridled approval.
Easy and engaging in front of his young audience, Albright explained his love of improvisation since an early age. To demonstrate, he asked the students to name four random notes. Albright took these building blocks and constructed a lush, meandering composition that could easily have been mistaken for a movie soundtrack. Gentle and lyrical one moment, martial and grandiose the next, it was an impressive sleight-of-hand which seemed, frankly, unbelievable. He performed another spontaneous composition, again with audience input, at the evening performance, making it feel like a collaboration.
Aladdin was the Disney tune the afternoon audience most wanted to hear. It was quickly followed by Jerry Lee Lewis' “Great Balls o' Fire” on which Albright wryly commented, “If I played this at the Kennedy Center, I'd probably be shot and never invited back!” It was also his encore for the evening performance. When asked to comment on the experience of playing in smaller venues like Cortez, he remarked on the great number of young people who returned for the evening performance and who helped to make the audience more “energetic, interactive and receptive.” The synergy between himself and his Cortez audience was palpable.
One concertgoer, Chris Kenny, had driven from Gallup, where Albright performed on Sunday night just so that he could hear him again. Said Kenny, who expressed frustration over the limitations of mere words to articulate his response to the performance, “I really think you can wait a lifetime to experience something like this. (Albright) goes beyond proficiency into another realm.” Before the concert, the M-CHS auditorium was filled with a collective buzz that something great was about to happen. Indeed, it did. And that seemed to be the power of Monday night's concert. We glimpsed something true, eternal and marvelous and the evening became a celebration of those qualities.
Monday night's concert was the third of four in the 2013/14 season of SouthWest Colorado Concerts. As they wrap up the current season and look ahead to the upcoming one, the question remains: How to meet the diverse tastes of its audiences while maintaining a high artistic standard of excellence? Season subscriber Kathy Berg remarked, “I think the area is craving this kind of music.” Resident Lowell Findley commented, “They (SWCC) outdid themselves bringing him to Cortez.” Cortez may have received its answer in a double dose of exceptional music on Monday when Charlie Albright walked out on stage and pulled this town into his orbit.
Wendy Watkins is owner and operator of S'More Music, LLC., a private Suzuki piano studio. She can be reached at 565-4129.