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CHAMBER REVIEW
Ken Iisaka / Sunday, January 25, 2009
Ken Iisaka, Pianist

PIANISTIC LARGESSE IN MARIN

by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 25, 2009

Marin pianist Ken Iisaka has been getting around lately, playing frequent concerts, competing in high-level competitions, writing about music and investigating rare repertoire that incites new interest. But he is seldom heard in a formal winter recital setting, with a good piano, and with somewhat standard compositions. The oversight was remedied January 25 when he presented four big works at San Rafael’s JB Piano Emporium under the auspices of the Concerts Grand piano series.

The afternoon’s music began with Haydn, specifically the effervescent Sonata No. 60 (Hob. XVI/50) that Lang Lang has frequently performed. Iisaka’s reading had all the humor and digital dexterity of Lang, along with exceptionally effective blurred pedal effects in the opening Allegro and deftly handled modulations in the Finale.

Brahms’ big Handel Variations, Op. 24, closed the first half. This monumental work from 1862 received an ardent reading, somewhat conventional compared to the text changes made in the classic Petri and Solomon recordings, but altogether achieving a powerful drama. The playing was not note perfect, but Iisaka generated momentum and majesty at the expense of precision. Tempos were brisk and allowed colorful inner details to shine. Iisaka had his arms solidly around the work.

Following an intermission spiced with gratis champagne and lots of audience piano playing on the store’s instruments (thankfully not the Grotrian 275 on the stage), Iisaka presented one of his signature pieces, the Berg Sonata, Op. 1. This sonata is a highly chromatic and thick-textured work, with seemingly everything growing from the first measures. Iisaka played it with fastidious attention to inner lines and polyphonic detail. Early Berg looks back toward the Romantic era, and Iisaka deftly spotlighted the connections.

Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) remains one of the Rodney Dangerfields of 20th century piano composers – never getting much public respect and eternally in the shadow of Rachmaninoff. His F-Sharp “Sonata Ballada,” Op. 27, concluded the program, and Iisaka played the cyclic forms so favored by Medtner with sharp relief. Iisaka clearly loves this music, and he lavished great care with the ephemeral themes and distinct contrasts. The constant breaks between the lyricism and passionate parts were effectively juxtaposed.

Iisaka tends to be generous with his pianistic largesse, and he offered two big sets of variations as encores. First came Kapustin’s Op.80 Theme and Variations, a tour-de-force fusion of jazz rhythms and the descending-note motif from Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps.” This reviewer was not alone in being unable to find the theme in the cascade of notes, and the pianist kindly showed the errors of our ways by demonstrating the motif prior to introducing yet another long and demanding encore, Mozart’s 12 variations on “Ah! Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.” Here Iisaka reveled in the complexity of the variation forms, displaying a light touch and droll phrasing. An éclair to end a recital of provocative music.

The reviewer is the Producer of the Concerts Grand series