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November 2, 1999

Alan Gampel, Pianist (Extraordinaire!)

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

Opening the 1999-2000 season on Sunday, Oct. 23 in Laidlaw Recital Hall, the Mobile Chamber Music Society presented Alan Gampel in a Lecture/Recital on this 150th anniversary of Chopin's death. And if anybody should be able to play Chopin, it certainly ought to be Gampel. He comes from an artistic family (which includes the legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska) and a distinguished line of teachers (who go back to Artur Schnabel and Johannes Brahms). He made his own debut at the Hollywood Bowl at the age of seven, won the Presidential Scholar's Award at the White House at 16, and graduated from Stanford with two majors at 19. He has also taken top prizes in numerous international competitions and performed in prestigious halls in Europe and the U.S. He did not disappoint.

Gampel interwove Chopin's life into a musical journey which began with a Mazurka written when Chopin was 14 and closed with a Mazurka written on his deathbed which he never played. He performed nine works in all, which included the second of the two sonatas -- a late work which is filled with more angst than most. His comments were insightful, often witty, and gave the demanding program a logical coherence.

Gampel strikes one as being of the same ilk as Mozart (whom Chopin loved) and Chopin, himself -- slight of build, child prodigy, stunning pianist. His style of playing is quiet, seldom seeming to exert great amounts of energy. He seemed to soar above the turbulence of the runs and trills of Chopin's early works, and seemed to relish the challenge of playing the constant right-hand variation and increasing number of notes per square inch over a waltz-like left hand without changing the tempo.

But Chopin, who composed almost exclusively for the piano, moved to greater technical feats. On hearing the first real stage-virtuoso, Niccolo Paganini, perform his daring deeds on the violin, Chopin decided to compose works which explored different problems in technique of the piano, and composed the Etudes. Gampel played two, the "Black Key" which emphasized the right hand and the "Revolutionary" which explored the left. The other renowned virtuoso of the century was Franz Liszt -- but even Liszt said when seeing Chopin's A flat major Polonaise that "to play this piece would be dangerous to one's health." This work has become a workhorse of the concert stage but is seldom played with such verve and speed. Here we glimpsed the pitfall which is the bane of a professional pianist -- just a second's lapse in concentration in a work you have performed 100 times and you forget exactly where in the piece you are -- but he recovered before most of his audience even noticed.

When listening to a virtuoso like Gampel, you hear the piano in a different way. Instead of a sequence of notes, there are luminous clouds of sound -- washes of color in the air. The hands ripple on the keyboard with such speed that you don't register all the notes even though they are making arabesques in your ears. Clean lines can create a blur of expressive sound.

Rounding out the performance, Gampel played two works which he had transcribed from orchestral scores -- Chopin's "Fantasie on Polish Airs" written for piano and orchestra, and the encore, Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite." Here, the Liszt connection was strong -- Liszt often transcribed overly large orchestral and operatic works for the piano and a famous cartoon shows the characters evoked from these stories all coming from the piano strings as he played. Gampel's showmanship and technical prowess was nowhere else so obvious -- surely the Firebird emerged in all its syncopated and colorful splendor. And it was this Phoenix which symbolized the whole program -- Chopin himself, lived again in our midst.


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