Reich + Rite pianist Vicky Chow takes on frightening fingerwork
If there’s anything we know about Vicky Chow, it’s that she likes a challenge. Or at least that’s the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the two concerts the Bang on a Can All-Stars pianist will present as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Each night’s first course will be the North American premiere of composer Steve Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, followed by Chow’s solo rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s stirring and complex orchestral masterpiece The Rite of Spring. And then, for dessert, she’ll be joined by an all-star Vancouver band for Louis Andriessen’s raucous Worker’s Union.
This is not a program for the faint-hearted.
Surprisingly, though, it’s not the technologically sophisticated Piano Counterpoint that’s currently giving Chow fits. Reich’s score requires the performer to synchronize with multiple prerecorded versions of herself, but the Vancouver-born musician says that working with software-based loops and samples is far from foreign terrain.
“It’s just like driving a car,” she says, by phone from her New York City home. “You just know you have another set of pedals. Not stepping on the wrong one is always an issue, I guess, but it’s not too complicated.”
She’s also been working closely with the composer in preparing Counterpoint, a work originally performed in Europe by Vincent Corver. “Steve likes the idea that I’m doing it slower than Vincent,” she says. “It has more of a groove, whereas the faster tempo almost gives it a techno feel. And it’s great. I think it transforms the experience completely.”
Far more difficult, she contends, is coming to terms with Stravinsky’s 1913 masterwork. Although she has made a close study of the composer’s piano-four-hands transcription, even that isn’t much help when it comes to reducing it further.
“I’m actually finding this a lot more daunting than doing the Reich, because there’s so many decisions to be made as to which things to leave out,” she says. “How can one pianist cover so much material? You’ve only got 10 fingers, but there are so many lines. So how do you reduce it? Everything is so important that it feels empty if you leave anything out.”
Chow’s not the first to attempt this seemingly impossible task. “Different people approach it differently,” she notes. “Some include everything, which makes it impossible to play, and some leave out a lot. I think it’s still something where people are trying to find the best way to do it.”
So far, the best way for Chow seems to involve developing her own transcription of the work. Beyond that, only genetic modification will do the trick.
“It’s just so hard!” the pianist says, sounding perhaps just slightly more pleased than vexed. “There are so many great motifs, and all of those iconic little themes that everybody knows so well, but a lot of the time they’re overlapping, or interrupting one another. I really need to grow another pair of hands!”
Close your eyes come showtime, and there’s a good chance that’s exactly how Chow’s Rite will sound.