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Pianist Tania Stavreva Challenges, Seduces, & Impresses with her Rhythmic Movement Multimedia show

Pianist Tania Stavreva Challenges, Seduces, & Impresses with her Rhythmic Movement Multimedia show

One of the most entertaining, visually compelling, and intellectually thought-provoking shows I’ve attended recently was a multimedia recital by classical pianist Tania Stavreva, an event entitled “Rhythmic Movement Multimedia: A New Picture on Classical Music,” at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn on May 10. Tania, a ravishing, raven-haired Bulgarian—who could easily make a successful living strutting on runways if she weren’t so ridiculously talented at delivering stretti on Steinways—adores complex, demanding modern piano pieces and dominates them the way some kids do Xbox games. She’s on a crusade to bring unfamiliar modern classical music, especially works from Bulgaria and Eastern Europe, to new venues and new audiences, bypassing stuffy traditional recital halls. So this show took place in a night club under Manhattan Bridge. (No ordinary night club, though: it was filled with thousands of gallons of water dotted with cocktail-table islands—“Galapagos,” get it?—accessed by bridges.) And this show involved some near nudity, body painting, video feeds, slide shows, improvised computer manipulation of live performance, and even some reaching in and plunking around under the piano lid. It may not have been a traditional classical recital, but it was a total blast.

Tania opened with the world premiere of her own composition “Rhythmic Movement,” from which the show took its title. It was a short virtuoso exercise in 7/8 time, with a throbbing bass figure evoking the sound of river rapids. In writing it, Tania was inspired by the piano compositions of Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978) and it derives its name from one of them, “Mouvement Rythmique.” Vladigerov, though still little known in the US, was the most significant Bulgarian composer of the 20th century, the first to make extensive use of national folk themes in his formidable compositions (many of them in complex time signatures such as 7/8, 11/8, and 7/16), thereby virtually single-handedly creating the modern Bulgarian classical idiom. By alluding to Vladigerov, Tania firmly establishes the show’s Bulgarian roots and performs respectful homage to a forebear underappreciated in the West. In Tania’s piece, “movement” was indeed the operative word, especially in the climax: her hands seemed to leap everywhere at once, sending a fusillade of notes exploding up and down the keyboard.

From that musically dramatic opening, the show immediately shifted gears, to a pairing of musical subtlety with visual drama. Erik Satie’s restrained, enigmatic “Gnossiennes” served as an aural backdrop to the artist Derrick Little’s live painting on a nearly nude model, Steffi Meuhlenkamp. To watch paint drizzled, brushed, & stroked onto the skin of a woman wearing no more than a loose, white, translucent skirt and flesh-tinted pasties—to watch this both onstage and also simultaneously enlarged via video feed on an enormous screen behind the stage—is to have an unavoidably erotically charged experience. All the more so when combined with the lush musical colors of Satie’s alluringly quiescent works, the earliest (from the 1890s) ones of the entire evening. What viewer did not sympathetically feel the chilly wetness of the paint as it was applied to and dripped down the model’s skin? Every live performance involves a certain amount of suspense: Will the pianist hit the wrong note? Will she forget to play a repeat? A whole new set of questions, though, arrived with this piece: Will the model shiver and jump at the touch of the brush and bounce it astray? Will the paint drip in the wrong direction and make a mess? What’s the artist going to do when he gets to her breasts? Suffice it to say that no false notes were struck by pianist, artist, or model, who at the end of the three pieces was entirely decorated with colorful vaguely floral swirls and abstract designs, a living metaphor for the musical coloration of Satie.

Tania plainly acknowledges that eroticism inheres in the act of live musical performance. A seductive performer whose curve-revealing, backless gowns give new meaning to the word “slinky,” she openly invites the erotic component of the viewer’s gaze. And she emphasized this component especially in the next piece, another Satie “Gnossienne” (No. 7), during the playing of which the gigantic background video feed focused squarely on her bare back and arms, which had been bedecked in advance with more elaborate undulations and daubs by Derrick Little. Tania’s delicate pedal-control perfectly separated Satie’s mysterious left-hand chords from the dreamy skipping legato melody in the right hand. And the movement of her muscles under the colorful paint, projected onto the screen, made a gorgeous counterpoint to the composer’s lilting half-dissonances.

Tania then shifted gears again and rounded out the first half of the show with a series of purely virtuoso pieces by Ginastera (1916-83), Kapustin (b. 1937), and the aforementioned Vladigerov, to display her pianistic brilliance in a variety of modes and flavors, from Argentinian dances, to jazz-infused modern classical exercises, to a rhythmically complex Bulgarian folk transfiguration. Tania’s astonishing keyboard pyrotechnics—her fingers moving as fast as a hummingbird’s wings, her hands flying everywhere at once—permeated all these pieces. But Kapustin’s flashy-yet-swinging “Jazz Études”—imagine George Gershwin channeling Franz Liszt—struck me as especially interesting & unusual.

The second half of the program opened with a return to Satie-like colorism in two pieces, “La Barca” (The Boat) and “Cuna” (The Cradle), from the “Impressiones intimas” of Federico Mompou (1893-1987).  These etherial pieces—which showed off Tania’s delicacy of touch and refined blending of Debussy-style dissonant harmonies—were accompanied by a slide show of photographs by Jack Dzamba. His careful compositions (monochrome seascapes with “La Barca”; a satin-wrapped female figure, Tania herself, on a swing with “Cuna”) were a lovely complement to the suggestive impressionism of the music.

Then the night began to wax experimental. For the next piece, Tania reached inside the piano to pluck strings with her fingers while composer Tim Daoust generated electronic tones through a computer on stage, both of them improvising. While there was no traditional melody or harmony to this piece, there was definitely a series of rhythmic phrases and tones—musical ideas, in short—the performers batted back and forth. The piece ostentatiously challenged hearers to reconsider their idea of what counts as a performance of serious classical music. Why not improvised? Why not computer-generated? Why not from the “wrong” part of the piano?

The next piece—John Cage’s famous ode to silence—challenged hearers even more ostentatiously. Cage’s work, entitled “4’33″”, is intended to consist of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence unaccompanied by any other form of performance, to draw the audience’s attention to the sounds that persist in an auditorium even when there is no performance. Tania shortened the piece by a minute & conspicuously violated Cage’s intent by bringing onstage a large prop alarm clock, ticking loudly. For the first minute of the piece, Tim Da0ust & Tania waltzed in slow motion to the ticking sound. Then they froze & held the pose until the time was up. Tania’s truncated piece—using dancers and the ticking clock to invite the audience to contemplate the ideas of rhythm, motion, and stasis in the context of the passage of time—sufficiently differs from Cage’s original to justify her crediting the piece to “Stavreva-Cage.”

Another experimental piece involved Tim Daoust’s electronically sampling fragments from his own piano composition, played live by Tania, and then redeploying those sampled fragments improvisatorily over her continuing performance of it. The blending of the live performance with the overlaid samplings was every bit as fascinating and thought-provoking as, say, the blending of musical colors in Satie and Mompou or the clashing of complex rhythmic figures in Ginastera, Kapustin, and Vladigerov.

For the finale Tania returned to her Bulgarian roots and played what is now becoming her signature piece, the Variations on the Bulgarian Folk song “Dilmano Dilbero,” by Alexander Vladigerov (1933-1993), Pancho’s son. A simple yet hypnotic, circling theme in minor that requires repeated switching of time-signatures between 8/8 and 11/8 grows increasingly elaborate and dramatic with each variation. The piece is analogous to Liszt’s “Totentanz” in the way it combines the brief simplicity of its base theme with the all-but-unplayable complexity and fireworks of the ensuing variations. No piece in her repertoire shows off Tania’s extraordinary speed, grace, accuracy, power, and musicality to greater effect than these Variations.

For an encore, she performed another flamboyant signature piece of hers, the fourth movement of Ginastera’s “Sonata No. 1,” and again her hands flew over the keyboard like a family of hummingbirds dodging machine-gun fire.

In short, the entire show was brimming with intellectually challenging musical ideas presented both seductively and with extraordinary musical mastery.

In the poem “Portrait of a Lady,” T. S. Eliot alludes to Chopin’s power to touch his audiences by his attractive presence as well as by his manual dexterity: “We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole / Transmit the Preludes through his hair and finger-tips.” Well, we have been, let ussay, to hear the latest Bulgarian, Tania Stavreva, transmit Gnossiennes, Danzas, Études, Variations, and more, not only through her hair and her fingertips but also through her painted bare back, through the series of evocative artistic images and improvisations she synchronizes with her performances, and through the affecting power of her concentrated virtuosity. And we were utterly impressed.

–  Mika Cooper