Amy E. Gustafson, an Important New Pianist, at Florence Gould Hall, Playing an Exceptional 9-foot Yamaha

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Amy E. Gustafson

Amy E. Gustafson

Florence Gould Hall, FIAF
Friday, June 9, 7:30pm
Amy E. Gustafson, piano

Debussy Préludes, Livre II 1911–13 (1913)

I. Brouillards
II. Feuilles mortes
III. La puerta del vino
[IV. “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses.”]
V. Bruyères
VI. General Lavine – eccentric
[VII. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune]
VIII. Ondine
IX. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
X. Canope
XI. Les tierces alternées
XII. Feux d’artifice

Suite Bergamasque, ca. 1890, rev. 1905 (1905)

Clair de lune

L’isle joyeuse 1903–4 (1904)

Rêverie, c1890 (1891)

One of the gratifying trends in recent piano recitals has been the interest in Debussy’s most ambitious piano compositions, above all Book II of his Préludes. In the past few years I’ve reviewed penetrating, deeply considered realizations of these subtle and complex sound-poems by Ian Hobson and Stephen Porter, which were among the most significant piano recitals I heard at the time. Marc-André Hamelin also included a characteristically brilliant and subtlety tinted and shaded reading of Images, Book I. It was a rich season for Debussy.

Now a relative newcomer, Amy E. Gustafson, has offered an equally insightful and sensually generous traversal Debussy’s Préludes, Book II. In this brief recital, intended to launch her new CD, her first, and limited to the repertoire on the disc.

While still at the beginning of her career, Amy Elizabeth Gustafson, has already toured extensively in the United States and Europe and established herself as a teacher and administrator in significant institutions. She was born into a musical family, and her gifts were recognized early on. Her grandmother was one of her first teachers, followed by summer studies in Jackson, Mississippi, and Houston Texas. By the age of fifteen, she had won several competitions, and it was time to move to New York City to study at the Manhattan School of Music. She earned her Bachelor of Music under the late Constance Keene as well as a Master of Music degree at New York University, where she was a scholarship student of Miyoko Nakaya Lotto. She completed her DMA at the University of Texas at Austin, studying under Anton Nel and her Professional Studies Certificate at Manhattan School of Music under André-Michel Schub. Her other major teacher has been Julian Martin at The Juilliard School.

She has also attended many master classes with Arie Vardi, Veda Kaplinsky, Bob McDonald, Paul Badura-Skoda, Marc Durand, Martin Canin, Leslie Howard, Dominique Weber, Solomon Mikowsky, and Luiz de Moura Castro and attended summer festivals such as Aspen, Pianofest, the Prague Master Classes, the Gijón International Piano Festival, and the Banff Piano Master Classes. She has won numerous awards, including the second prize in the International Young Artists Piano Competition, second prize in the Joyce Dutka Arts Foundation Competition, and the Special Presentation Award and the Alumni Award from Artists International Presentations, Inc.

Currently she enjoys a busy schedule of performing and teaching in the New York area and around the world. Her most recent performances included a ten-recital tour in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, performances in northern Spain and in Canada, and recitals at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall, Steinway Hall, the Tenri Cultural Institute, CAMI Hall and the Kosciuszko Foundation. She is a Resident Teaching Artist at Bloomingdale School of Music in New York City, the founding Executive Director of The Stony Brook International Piano Festival in Stony Brook, New York, and the vice president and treasurer of the Spanish American Music Council. Ms. Gustafson is a Yamaha Artist.

This broad spectrum of study has led Ms. Gustafson to a highly individual style of her own—rather spectacularly displayed on a nine-foot Yamaha CFX Concert Grand, transported with some difficulty to the stage of Florence Gould Hall at the French Institute Alliance Française. This was one of the noblest and most sumptuous modern instruments I have heard, and if I were the director of FIAF, I should have asked Yamaha to leave it there, immediately setting out in search of a donor to buy it for the institution. The hall and the piano complemented each other most sympathetically, and with it, Florence Gould Hall could become a major piano venue…and we need another in New York, as those who frequent concerts at Alice Tully and Zankel will understand. The instrument, at least in Gustafson’s hands, is capable of a vast gamut of tone colors, which remain nonetheless consistent. (I was reminded of the way Angela Hewitt works the Fazioli she plays at the Y in her ongoing—magnificent—Bach series, which resembles the registers of an organ.) She utilized this remarkable capability in the instrument to separate lines, motifs, and ideas—trains of thought in these poetic compositions, each of which has a programmatic subject or theme. For Gustafson the treasures of these works lay in their narratives, full of contrast and drama, and expressed in infinitely nuanced dynamics and color. She also created atmosphere through color, phrasing, and accent, rather than through pedalling. Her use of the sustaining pedal was minimal and almost unnoticeable in its subtlety in certain passages. There was a reason for every musical gesture she made. Great playing should have this kind of control, and a musical concept behind it. The result, in her selection of pieces from Book II, was as absorbing and significant as the others I have mentioned—distinguished company indeed.

In the Préludes, Debussy concentrated both on character, as did Beethoven in his Bagatelles and Schumann in his Kreisleriana, and narrative, carrying his musical expression to a literary level of expression, so precise are his shifts and contrasts. Ms. Gustafson had assimilated this deeply  and expressed it pianistically through her highly polished technique, which gave her full control over the nuance of every note and texture. Her playing was meticulous, but always musical, probing, and expressive.

One could take as an example Les Feux d’Artifice, which requires a certain sfumato from the sustaining pedal, as well as other effects of staccato and cantabile, without much pedalling. Ms. Gustafson brought this off to perfection, and this range of understanding, brilliant technique, and taste can stand for the rest of the collection she played.

Beginning her program, which had no intermission, with the most elaborate, complex, and poetic of Debussy’s works for piano—a work in which Debussy had developed a modernist language without abandoning the Romantic suite of virtuoso character pieces—Ms. Gustafson invited us to listen to the earlier works which succeeded it through that spiritual lens. Her program led straight back through Debussy’s career: the Suite Bergamasque, begun around 1890, but not completed (and revised) in 1905, L’isle joyeuse of 1903–4, and, as an encore, Rêverie, c1890 (1891), the title work of her recording, and one of Debussy’s most accessible, beloved pieces. In terms of her playing, she gave these simpler, often sweet and seductive works the same close reading she devoted to the Préludes, using the full gamut of color and dynamics of her powerful instrument. There were no fuzzy clouds of sound or generalized delicatesse. Even the rapid passagework, to which she gave some of the traditional sfumato, had a strength and edge one doesn’t often hear, fleshed out rather than softened by the rich timbre of the piano. Gustafson’s treatment of rests, pauses, and transitions was especially striking and expressive. In her moving performance of Rêverie she managed to accommodate both the simplicity of the beautiful melody and the sophistication of Debussy’s writing.

Anyone who had the good fortune to be in the impressive turnout in Florence Gould Hall will be happy to know that Ms. Gustafson’s CD, recorded under the auspices and technical guidance of Yamaha Artist Services by Aaron Ross, using Yamaha’s Disklavier technology is an excellent (but not exact) representation of her playing on that occasion. So will any lover of Debussy’s piano music, who is interested in hearing a fresh approach.

Regarding the recording, I can do no better than to quote Yamaha’s own account of how the recording was made:

A state-of-the-art application of Disklavier performance reproducing technology that, for the first time ever, enables recordings to be edited in pre-production. This innovative protocol represents a revolution in the creation of solo piano recordings, allowing the pianist to have full creative control throughout every step of the recording process—from performance to editing to re-recording.

The process began with Ms. Gustafson performing on the Disklavier CFX concert grand piano (DCFX) at Yamaha Artist Services, a state-of-the-art facility that features a 128 channel Dante-equipped Nuage recording and mixing console for professional audio recording and post production. The instrument captured her performance with impeccable accuracy and finesse, storing it as MIDI data. This performance data was then edited in MIDI format, enabling precise splicing of takes, and refinement of articulations, such as fermatas, staccatos, tenuto, and accents, subtle shadings of dynamics and shaping of phrasing, and duration of pedaling. Once the editing process was complete, Rêverie was then replayed on the same DCFX piano, relocated to the stage of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a recording space on the upper west side of Manhattan highly coveted by musicians and engineers for its warm acoustic environment. There, the final master recording took place.

This groundbreaking production method, available exclusively on the Yamaha Disklavier reproducing piano, provides an extraordinarily high level of artistic control, enabling recording artists to fully direct their own unique interpretation of the music, both from the keyboard and throughout the editing process. Additionally, the ability to edit in the pre-recording stage provides a more efficient and economical approach to recording, accelerating the editing process and reducing the amount of time and rental expenses required to record in top venues.

The CD is available from her site, MP3 downloads are available from Amazon and iTunes, but since the recording quality and unusual recording method is so much a part of the product,  the limitations of MP3 would vitiate the experience.

The concert and the CD introduced me to an important new voice in the keyboard world, as well as to the wonders of the Yamaha CFX, and the special qualities of Disklavier technology, as a tool for both recording and rehearsal—not to mention the dedication of Bonnie Barrett and her staff at Yamaha Artist Services in New York.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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