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Newcomer Jade Simmons Delights and Innovates
Newcomer Jade Simmons Delights and Innovates
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Piano recital by Jade Simmons September 25 Meany Hall

For solo recitals, most of us spend our money to hear artists who are famous, or at least have some rave reviews to assure us of a worthwhile evening. While the President's Piano series at the UW has always included a few relatively unknown young pianists in its season, this year it is asking its subscribers to gamble on a full slate of promising newcomers, with only one "big name" artist (Krystian Zimerman, April 21). The gamble, however, is not a big one; those who are familiar with the PP series know that it simply doesn't engage uninteresting artists.

To say Jade Simmons, in her Seattle debut, was interesting would be to damn with faint praise. Indeed, she excelled on every level. And she is a many-leveled artist: pianist, teacher, musical innovator extraordinaire, advocate for America's youth, founder of the popular percussion and dance ensemble Boomshaka, first runner-up at the 2000 Miss American Pageant, and dress designer. (She designed the two stunning dresses she wore this evening.)

Her all-American, 20th- and 21st-century program began with Gershwin's 'Three Preludes,' (1926). These familiar pieces left no doubt about the musicality of the performer. Jazzy, technically secure, and communicative throughout, they brought the audience into the warm personality of Ms. Simmons.

Before each of the remaining works, the pianist spoke at some length and with obvious intelligence and humor about its appeal. She said her fiery dress was especially appropriate to John Corigliano's 'Etude Fantasy' (1976), with its passionate rhythms and intensity. Each of the five "studies" in the work focused on specifics of performance: "For the Left Hand Alone," "Legato," "Fifths to Thirds," "Ornaments," and "Melody." Overall, it was a substantial and engaging trip, and one with which I would like to become more familiar.

Richard Wagner once said, "Children, try something new!" Ms. Simmons clearly agreed, as her next two works amply demonstrated. First, Russell Pinkston (b. 1949) included recorded sounds in his "TaleSpin" for Piano and Tape. Quoting from the program notes, "Many of the electronic sounds were processed recordings of a series of strange noises made by composer Stephen Montague, caught fooling around inside an acoustic piano during a recording session in 1995." This turned out to be a lot of fun and made the most of the pianist's love of rhythm.

I found Daniel Bernard Roumain's 'Hip-Hop Studies and Etudes' for Solo Piano (selections) less successful but nonetheless interesting, especially because Ms. Simmons had, with the composer's permission, added her own bass-line rhythm track (pre-recorded). She explained beforehand that the score had three lines of music running parallel to each other, of which the performer was asked to choose any two! To add to the fun, she also used a "loop foot pedal" with which to record and then play back, as she continued the play live over what she had just recorded. More interesting than satisfying to my ears.

Samuel Barber's 'Piano Sonata, Op. 26' (1949), concluding the printed program, fed us the main meal of the evening. It employed Schönberg's 12-tone system of composition without ever becoming detached or uncommunicative. Again, our pianist gave us commentary before her performance. She told us that the work was originally in only three movements; but the intended first performer, Vladimir Horowitz, insisted that Barber add a fourth. He said to end with the extremely depressing third movement would have had the audience going home to commit suicide! The added movement is a technical tour de force, a fast five-part fugue. Ms. Simmons here lay to rest any doubts we may have had about her technical mastery!

The single encore was an extremely lovely Rachmaninov's "Etudes tableaux in A minor, Op. 39, #2. It was a welcome change after American hotdogs and roast beef!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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