Thomas Purviance on Franz Liszt

Thomas Purviance introduced Franz Liszt through his music and life via portraits and stories at the McCoy Theatre at the Maui Arts and Cultural Centre in Hawaii on Sunday 10 April 2011.

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Liszt Bicentennial, the raison d’etre

2011 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886). The American Liszt Society lists various conservatories that are celebrating the bicentennial. The New England Conservatory in Boston salutes Liszt with seven concerts featuring all piano majors in its Lisztomania marathon.

Coincidentally, it is also the year of the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition which occurs every 3 years in Utrecht, Netherlands, where I have been living since 2006. The winners get to tour the world until the subsequent competition. As audience, you attend the semi-finals and finals not to understand and appreciate Liszt but to experience piano playing at its best. You sit and watch young pianists devour Liszt repertoire with stunning virtuosity. The Liszt menu varies by the day, and die-hard Liszt aficionados (a.k.a. Lisztians) never tire of it.

Having hosted a Liszt prize winner twice and listening to him bringing out the most from my Steinway grand, I thought I knew Liszt until I heard Thomas Purviance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Centre (MACC) yesterday.

Legacy of Franz Liszt

On Sunday 10th April 2011, Purviance presented Liszt as a person —with a slide show projected to the big screen. He greeted the audience as a storyteller, introducing Franz Liszt as a pianist, composer, teacher, and benefactor. He contrasted Liszt with Chopin, whose 200th anniversary preceded Liszt’s by a year. While Chopin played in salon concerts, Liszt preferred public concert halls. While Chopin wrote almost exclusively for piano with great perfection and mastery, Liszt’s music extended far beyond the piano but not everything was perfect.

After this introduction to Liszt via Chopin, Purviance played the Etude de Concert no. 3, also known as Un Sospiro which means “a sigh.” My Finnish friend had introduced this piece to me in London. It was nice to hear it again. I could easily have mistakened it for one of Chopin’s works because of the distinctive melody floating on the wave-like arpeggiation beneath. It was  a good opening piece to those of us less familiar with Liszt. Below: Thomas Purviance playing Un Sospiro in the Czech Republic.

[Un Sospiro PDF score]

Paganini made a huge impression on Liszt. After hearing the violinist perform in Paris in 1831, Liszt decided to do the same for the piano by extending what was technically possible for the piano and establishing new standards of performance. Liszt took 6 of Paganini’s original caprices and turned them into a volume of work for the piano, entitled Grand Etudes of Paganini, S141, of 1851. Embedded in this are new innovations for piano playing.

Purviance demonstrated the alternating octaves in the beginning of Paganini Etude no. 2 in E-flat before executing the piece beautifully.

[Paganini Etude no. 2 in E flat PDF score]

The Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) contain some of Liszt’s finest works, inspired by his years in Switzerland and Italy. Purviance chose Vallee d’Obermann from the first pilgrimage (to Switzerland). The melancholic mood is entirely different from the romantic mood of the next piece, Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from his second pilgrimage (to Italy).

[Vallee d’Obermann, no. 6 in volume 2: PDF score]

Finally, Purviance gave an example of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12, lesser known of the 19 piano solo works based on Hungarian gypsy tunes. Through this format of slide show, lecture, and performance, Purviance showed his knowledge of Liszt and repertoire and shared his love of the music he selected in this programme.

[Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12 PDF Score]

The audience leapt to give a standing ovation. But something was amiss. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 is not like the No. 2 which has become famous through use in cartoons and Hollywood films. How should an all-Liszt concert end?

Purviance read our thoughts.

He said, “When I gave this concert to some friends, they asked, ‘haven’t you forgotten something?’ ”

Without further ado, he sat down and rolled out one of Liszt’s most famous and eternal pieces — Liebesträume (Dream of Love).

[Liebesträume PDF Score]

After the concert

Later I learned from a fellow listener that Thomas Purviance gave a concert of all Chopin works in 2010 in the same location — similar format. This integrative approach of introducing the composer through his works, portraits, and influences fared well with the audience, for you get to understand and appreciate the artist.

Whose birthday is it next year to get the Purviance touch? I only got as far as getting a business card from Thomas Purviance in the back stage. But his card had nothing to do with music!

Hawaiian slack key guitar master George Kahumoku, Jr.

Now in its 6th consecutive year, every Wednesday evening George Kahumoku’s Masters of Slack Key Guitar in Napili gives visitors a dose of the real Hawaiian aloha — a must see.

One early evening in February 2011, I met a Hawaiian man carrying several guitars (in cases) and pushing a small trolley full of sheet music. I pointed to his guitars and asked, “Do you teach guitar?”

“Yes, I teach slack key guitar. Want to learn?”

Slack-key guitar is a genre of guitar playing that is native to Hawaii. Slack refers to the loosening of the tuning pegs such that different open tunings allow a more natural sound.

“No. I don’t have time now. My husband plays the guitar.”

“Tell him to come to my class. Here’s my card. I’m George Kahumoku.”

“He’s not here. He’s on tour on the mainland. A solo guitar tour,” I said.

“He’s a guitarist? A professional?”

He had a strange expression on his face. Later I guessed that he was probably pondering, “How did a professional guitarist come to Maui and I didn’t know about it?”

George Kahumoku, or Uncle George as he is affectionately called, is Hawaii’s Renaissance man. Winner of several Grammy and Hoku Awards, he is a master slack key guitarist, songwriter, world-traveling performer, high school and college teacher, artist and sculptor, storyteller and writer, farmer and entrepreneur. Needless to say, George has been there, done that. He knows many people.

The second time I met George was in a computer training session. Sensing my curiosity about his “Masters of Slack Key Guitar ” concert that Thursday evening of 10th March 2011, he gave me two tickets for the McCoy Theatre at the Maui Arts and Cultural Centre.

The third time we met in the Maui College canteen. I mentioned that I was looking for a piano to practise on. He told me he was teaching that evening and could give me access to a grand piano.

The fourth time we met was that evening, to deliver an autographed copy of a new book that was signed at an event that Robert Bekkers played at. We interrupted his Hawaiian guitar class. “Come to my show at Napili tomorrow,” invited George Kahumoku, Jr. as we exchanged contact details after the class and near his truck.

Napili is a place north of Lahaina and Kanaapali on the other side of the Wailuku mountains. The short way to get there is the treacherous and dangerous way on shoulderless roads. The longer way is the safer way south, east, and north. There is no path across or through the Wailuku mountains to reach the west side that is famous for romantic sunsets. We had the lame excuse that we were performing at the Four Seasons in Wailea last Wednesday and could not drive the 40 minutes to see his weekly show at Napili.

When the Four Seasons manager called this past Tuesday afternoon to cancel what would have been our second Wednesday performance, the initial disappointment turned into a blessing in disguise. “Bring your guitar,” George had phoned Robert that Wednesday morning. We drove the hour journey to Napili Kai Beach Resort where the show was to begin at 7:30 pm.

Unlike the McCoy Theatre, the Aloha Theatre at Napili was an outdoor stage inside a huge marquee. Everyone was dressed in colourful Hawaiian shirts and dresses. We were the exception, too formally in black and white. When we arrived at 7:40 pm, a young man was playing a tune I recognised. Enthusiastically I said to George,”Robert can play the duet to this. Who is that?”

“He’s my student,” said George.

The young man was Peter deAquino, who together with his first cousin Garrett Probst of the Ukelele Boyz co-host the weekly shows of George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili.

Robert Bekkers and George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili
Robert Bekkers and George Kahumoku, Jr at Napili

After George told his stories and played his songs, he invited Robert on stage to play a solo.  George then invited Peter deAquino to play Tico Tico on the ukelele and Robert to jam on his concert guitar in accompaniment. Thereafter the special guest of the evening, Jeff Peterson, son of a Hawaiian cowboy on Maui, entertained the guests with his stories of Hawaii and various styles of guitar playing. What went through my mind was this: how nice it is to know your roots so well — to be able to share stories of your grandparents and your roots and use words from your own language to describe your culture and values. Was this the slack key guitar tradition?

There was more to come. The real fun of the evening came after the intermission when the Ukelele Boyz, Sterling Seaton, Jeff Peterson, and George Kahumoku all played together. What a great idea to host a weekly show and invite different guitarists to play! It was sheer joy to watch them banter on stage and jam to various styles: Hawaiian, folk, rock and roll, etc. No words can describe that wonderful evening in Napili. In those 2.5 hours, the performers communicated the essence of a Hawaiian aloha through their stories, conversations, and music.

I concluded that this Wednesday show is a MUST for all visitors to Maui. I was glad that Uncle George insisted we come to this show. Mahalo!

Relevant links:

Jeff Peterson and Robert Bekkers at Napili
Jeff Peterson and Robert Bekkers at Napili