JAN BACH CONCERTO ATTRACTIVE, BRILLIANT, AND FUN IN PREMIERE
John Von Rhein, Music Critic, Chicago Tribune, July 9. 1981
IT IS A RARE ENOUGH occurence to hear a world premiere in Chicago during the winter musical season. but encountering a first performance of any serious work at one of the area's mass- oriented summer festivals these days is like getting a side order of caviar along with your hamburger.
Now some might consider caviar a rather too-fancy metaphor to employ on behalf of Jan Bach's Piano Concerto, which had its world premiere by the Grant Park Symphony Wednesday night at the Petrillo Music Shell. And perhaps it is. But that is not to deny the considerable virtues of this 35 minute showpiece. Bach has written a work that is both challenging to play and highly accessible to the listener. It is attractive and brilliant and lots of fun, and it surely will be greeted with open arms by every pianist who has ever lamented, "They don't write concertos for the keyboard any more." One predicts a long and happy repertory life for it.
Bach, an Illinois-born composer who teaches at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, wrote the concerto in 1973. Strangely, it is his first major work to be heard in this area, although his children's opus The Happy Prince also has its Chicago premiere this week, at Grant Park.
THE STYLISTIC point of reference for the concerto seems to be the somewhat spiky-neo- romanticism of Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto; there are also passing allusions to Bartok, Prokofiev, Copland, and Ives. Bach works within a comfortably tonal, conservative idiom, uses standard formal devices, and pits piano against orchestras in a way that progresses from friendly interplay in the muscular first movement to a burlesque duel in the perpetual-motion rondo-finale. There is hardly an effect or gesture that the listener has not heard before, in some other context. But Bach manipulates the familiar materials with such assurance, craft, and sheer vitality that the derivations take on a certain amiable validity.
Perhaps the most affecting movement is the central one, a theme with nine variations based on a lullaby by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd; the lullaby, in an old Alfred Deller recording, is played off-stage preceding the movement. The lyrical theme is a natural for variation treatment. and Bach's way of passing it between piano and orchestra in various embroidered forms is sensitive as, well as skillful. Music theater raises its impish head near the end of the free- for-all finale, where various orchestra players are required to stand up and attempt to drown out the soloist with cliche noise-effects. Dampened but undaunted, the pianist scampers free in a concluding flourish of octaves.
SHELDON SHKOLNIK, the Chicago pianist now living in New York, was the soloist. He has championed many a difficult, unfamiliar work in local performance, and it is hard to imagine anyone being able to dig into its jazzy syncopations, bravura passagework, or staccato declamation with greater assurance and style. Christopher Keene conducted with an obvious feel for the inner life of the score as well as an obvious grasp of its rhythmic and coordinational problems. The composer bounded up on stage to join in the enthusiastic applause. The concerto will have a second performance at Grant Park Friday evening.