Solo piano recitals focussing exclusively on the works of a single contemporary composer are relatively rare in recent concert schedules. Perhaps equally rare is a newly released recording of a single contemporary composer’s piano works by an artist of international calibre. That is why Christina Petrowska Quilico’s performance at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on January 22, 2013, celebrating the release of her recording of Constantine Caravassilis’ Complete Books of Rhapsodies and Fantasies for solo piano was such a special event.
Constantine Caravassilis, who was born in Toronto but grew up primarily on Samos Island, Greece, holds a resume of fellowships and honors roughly as broad as the personal interests that influence his compositional style. Greek mythology, Byzantine culture, literature, spirituality, and nature were all cited in his extensive program notes as primary influences in the works that were performed. Equally impressive is the breadth of musical influences he mentions: from Hildegard von Bingen to Scriabin to minimalism. The eclecticism that results from such a wide variety of interests was the most apparent theme connecting the works. No doubt every composer could share countless influences on the music they write, but what separates Caravassilis is that his music projects those influences at the very surface of every piece. All of this is not to say that his music lacks individuality. His formal structures and pianistic gestures in particular contribute to a rather distinct compositional voice.
The most extensive work on Quilico’s program was the half-hour-long Shadow Variations on a Theme by Alan Hovhaness, based on a theme from the second movement of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 2 “Mysterious Mountain.” The theme is pentatonic (the scale that comes from playing only the black notes on a piano) and rhythmically quite simple. The variations, however, are anything but simple. The 24 variations are cast in three major sections which are separated by “Intermezzi,” with six of the variations carrying the title “Ombra” (the word for “shadow” in Italian). These shadow variations were “intended to be integral parts of the work, yet distanced from the theme, however briefly,” (from the program notes). Again, Caravassilis cites several specific influences on the creation of this work including Russian bravura, French finesse, and German discipline. The predetermined structure of this work bred creativity for Caravassilis. While many of the other pieces seemed to float casually (and at times somewhat unconvincingly) from one musical idea to the next, the theme and variations form here focused Caravassilis’ virtuosic gestures into a cogent musical statement. Influences were more clearly delineated–especially during variations entitled “Sarabande,” “Fugato,” and “Burlesque”–but the composer managed to make his mark on each.
Quilico’s playing was superb throughout the evening, encouraging the audience to demand an encore at the end of Shadow Variations and again at the conclusion of the concert. She embraced each of the influences Caravassilis projected in his scores with evident ease, displaying sheer pianistic virtuosity. Quilico’s commitment to the project was demonstrated further by a group of paintings she created in response to Caravassilis’s compositions which were shown on video screens throughout the studio before and after the concert. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend an exhibit of the works that took place later in the week. Many of the paintings on display at the Glenn Gould Studio were abstract, seeming to mimic structural characteristics in the music, while others included clearer images, especially trees.
The crowd of about 250 or so patrons seemed generally receptive toward the compositions, but occasionally fidgeted toward the end of the recital. Nevertheless, Caravassilis has a talent for programmatic depiction through music, and a unique compositional voice to go with it. If CD sales are any indication of success, Caravassilis and Quilico made their mark: there were far fewer copies of the recording on the merchandise table after the performance than there were before.
Justin Rito is a composer, pianist, runner, Detroit Tigers fan, and microbrew lover currently living in London, Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @justinrito.