Pianist Orli Shaham was in Dallas Thursday night for a recital at Hamon Hall, a small space located within the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Her performance of works by William Bolcom, Brahms and Mussorgsky, though uneven and hampered by a bad instrument, was full of humor and sensitive moments, and her spoken remarks helped add a personal touch to the already intimate setting.

Ms Shaham was at her best in several of Bolcom’s Twelve New Etudes. She spoke about the humor in these works, as each is a satirical take on its subject matter. The Récitatif was in Ms Shaham’s words “the accompanist’s revenge”, an opportunity for the pianist, weary of acquiescing to the whims of an indulgent singer, to do it all herself. The melodic strains mimic a high voice distorting rhythms to the point of caricature; Bolcom requires the pianist to pluck certain notes inside the piano, which necessitates even more time and tonight elicited the first of several chuckles from the audience. Continuing with the vocalist-ribbing (all good-natured though, as Bolcom’s wife is a mezzo-soprano), Ms Shaham played Scène d’opéra, in which the pianist’s left hand plays a steady repeated figure against an increasingly hysterical barrage of notes in the upper register. Ms Shaham lost this fight with her prima donna, stretching the tempo too much to accommodate some of the right-hand passagework, but the overall effect was still intact. After this came Bolcom’s Nocturne; in place of the soothing melody expected in a piece of that title, Bolcom inserts painfully dissonant, hyper-accented notes. Ms Shaham concluded her set of études with an entertaining performance of Hi-jinks, a cartoonish study in sudden dynamic contrasts set entirely within the uppermost register of the piano (and for which Ms Shaham moved the piano bench far to the right).

Describing the character and compositional style of a living composer isn’t a difficult proposition. Conveying first-hand knowledge of an artist who died in 1897 presents more of a challenge (to put it lightly), but Ms Shaham successfully navigated the potentially jarring segue into Brahms’ Klavierstücke Op. 118. Before playing these six pieces, she spoke eloquently of the ambiguity in Brahms’ music – manifested in everything from the embedding of melodies in middle voices, to the blurring of meter – and how this ambiguity, a quintessentially human characteristic, allows us to appreciate “an old man talking [musically] to himself and his closest friends”. This confessional quality was clearest in delicate moments like the Intermezzo in A major and Romanze in F major. Ms Shaham’s zeal got the better of her in thicker passages, as in the Ballade in G minor, where a bit more judicious voicing would have helped to temper the extreme imbalance of the piano. (The instrument’s treble produced virtually no sustained, singing sounds and was overpowered by its bass – ugly, loud, and prone to buzzing noises – but Ms Shaham could have dealt with it more effectively.)

After intermission came another late-Romantic favorite, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in its original solo-piano form. Only a few of the paintings that inspired Mussorgsky survive today, but Ms Shaham’s performance was supplemented by a set of works by the artist Manuel Díaz (the father of cellist Andrés and violist Roberto Díaz). Mr Díaz favors a warm palette and soft edges, and seemingly sought to eliminate much of a personal experience in his scenes: the oxcart of Bydlo sat empty, without oxen, driver, or cargo; the chattering Market Place at Limoges was an empty square; and Tuileries, subtitled “Children Quarrelling at Play”, featured one pleased-looking youngster strolling by a fountain.

The artwork was tasteful and the idea interesting, but its implementation was problematic. Slides sometimes changed slightly too soon, ruining the ending of one piece by distracting listeners with expectations of the next, and least successful was the attempt to vary the color of the lights in the room for each piece. The stage lights (which ran overhead along either side of the audience) made quite a bit of noise as several colored gels shuffled past at each transition, eventually arriving at the desired color. (Yellow, used for all repetitions of the Promenade, and green, also frequently used, were painfully far apart on this cycle of colors.) Occurring at quiet moments, such as the delicate beginning of the fourth Promenade, this further distracted from Ms Shaham’s playing. Her performance, too, was least successful in this work. Faster sections sounded fraught and frequently sloppy, particularly in The Great Gate of Kiev, where measured grandeur would have been a better option. But slower numbers like The Old Castle were lovely, and The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks showcased the same humor evident in Ms Shaham’s Bolcom études. For all its technical issues, musical and otherwise, this recital still presented some vivid characterizations and food for thought.

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