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SPOTLIGHT ON DEBUSSEY

Wunderkind pianist Steven Beck presents a tough program of rarely heard works at Bargemusic

for The Brooklyn Paper
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At the ripe-old age of 25, pianist Steven Beck is already a seasoned veteran of the Bargemusic stage.

Beck was the featured performer at Bargemusic’s holiday concerts last winter that included his playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations; and just this past week, he was one of several musicians who stepped in to perform when the British chamber group Chamber Domaine had to bow out of its scheduled appearances at the last minute.

But it’s his upcoming appearance at Bargemusic July 22-25 that’s been generating the most buzz, largely for the substantial works to be played that Beck programmed himself.

He has constructed two first-rate, all-French programs, the first to be performed July 22-23 and the second, July 24-25. Although the music runs the gamut from the 18th to the 20th centuries, one composer anchors both recitals: Claude Debussy, whose two books of Etudes for Solo Piano are featured.

"These are all pieces that I wanted to play," Beck told GO Brooklyn. "I’ve been kind of obsessed with Debussy’s Etudes for quite awhile. I’ve done a few of them here and there, but this will be the first time I’ll be doing all of them. I find Debussy’s later music, especially his instrumental sonatas, very enticing. Yet the etudes are not played very much, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re not played very well when they are. I’ve never heard a performance of the Etudes that’s made me think, ’Yes, that’s it!’

"Admittedly, it’s very strange music," he said. "The continuity is strange. The techniques he used in his early work are compressed in the etudes, everything moves at a much faster pace, and it’s much more complicated. I don’t know if I will be able to play them all that well either, but if they’re played often enough, we’ll be able to shed more light on them."

The July 22-23 concerts open with a work by the Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, appropriately titled "Premiere concert."

"I wanted to make sure that when I play the etudes, we also play other French works that would go well with them," said Beck. "If you want to play old French music, especially from the Baroque period, there’s not a lot of chamber music available, so the Rameau piece jumps immediately to mind.

"’Premiere concert’ comes from a suite of three pieces originally composed for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. We’re doing it in an arrangement for violin, cello and piano."

After the first book of Debussy’s Etudes, the first pair of concerts conclude with two rarely heard works: Olivier Messiaen’s "Theme and Variations" for violin and piano, and Camille Saint-Saens’ Septet.

"When choosing music from the 20th century, I didn’t want to play the [overplayed] Ravel trio once again, but I also didn’t want to go too far into the hard-hitting newer music like [Pierre] Boulez’s," Beck said. "I felt that the Messiaen work is a good compromise, because it’s not too difficult for the players or the audience. It’s more accessible than his later music."

Saint-Saens’ Septet was also an obvious choice, for a few reasons.

"I wanted to build the program so it wouldn’t be too taxing to sit through," said Beck. "Saint-Saens’ Septet is a very public piece, not too intimate, and quite outgoing. Unlike what some people say, there are virtues to his music. Last year, I did some bigger works in a chamber-music format, and this summer I wanted to do a larger chamber piece as well."

Along with the second book of Debussy Etudes, the July 24-25 concerts include the Second Piano Quartet of Gabriel Faure, who was one of Saint-Saens’ students at the conservatory.

"The Faure quartet is a more digestible piece, like the Septet on the first program," said Beck. "I originally wanted to do [Faure’s] String Quartet, but I thought it would be too exhausting for the audience coming after the second book of Etudes."

Beck finds that the works he and his cohorts will be performing undercuts a popular fallacy about Gallic composers.

"The charge against French music is that it’s often too superficial," said Beck. "But that definitely doesn’t apply to the pieces we’re playing at Bargemusic."

 

Pianist Steven Beck is joined by violinists Harumi Rhodes and Beverly Shin, violist Kyle Armbrust, cellist Eric Jacobson, double bassist Grey Fulmer and trumpeter Mark Gould for four concerts of French music, July 22-24 at 7:30 pm, and July 25 at 2 pm, at Bargemusic (Fulton Ferry Landing at the end of Old Fulton Street on the East River). Tickets are $35, $20 for full-time students. For more information, visit www.bargemusic.org or call (718) 624-2083.

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