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Deft touch: pianist Juana Zayas.

A Keen Sense of Architecture

By B.A. Nilsson

Juana Zayas

First Presbyterian Church, Johnstown, Dec. 7

A recital of piano music by Brahms and Chopin in a fine old midcity church has an Edith Wharton-ish aspect to it, and this program could—and, for all we know, might—have taken place here a hundred years ago.

But nothing like this has occurred here in recent memory. Johnstown has no major concert hall—the Glove, in neighboring Gloversville, is closest—but the First Presbyterian Church offered an acoustically pleasing sanctuary. and a small but well-appointed Steinway was brought in for the occasion.

Cuban-born pianist Juana Zayas forged a career in America that has put her in the classical music world’s small spotlight only intermittently, but when she performs (and records), it’s an event worth celebrating.

She chose a demanding program that celebrated the instrument’s Romantic-era heyday, with Brahms and Chopin providing the bulk of the works she chose. And I can’t imagine a piece announcing itself more Brahmsianly than that composer’s Rhapsody No. 1 in B-minor. It opens with a characteristic theme that wanders for a bit before settling into a passage with a unique sense of majesty and introspection, and just when you think you’re about to stride off in autumnal triumph, it eases into a soft, haunting section with just as much motion as the beginning but in a far more cantabile manner. The piece shimmers between those modalities even as it plays with harmonic modes, with a major key often threatening to break through its minor-ness.

There’s a lot of work for the pianist for ten busy minutes, and Zayas demonstrated a special skill that goes beyond the merely technical: an understanding of the architecture of a work like this, and the ability to use that understanding to sculpt the components into an effective whole. We didn’t just shift from loud to soft, introspective to triumphant—we were taken on a journey that left us more fulfilled at its end.

The roadmap of that journey is easier to follow in Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. This nearly half-hour piece starts with a merry theme from Handel’s first harpsichord suite and winds through 25 variations in all shapes and sizes before launching the monumental fugue. Always obsessed with keeping up with Beethoven’s high standards, Brahms outdid himself here, and Zayas brought the first half of the program to an impressive close. My only quarrel with her interpretation—and it was a trait I noted in a couple of the works that followed—was a tendency to pull back on the big endings, unexpectedly softening them.

Chopin’s four impromptus opened the second half, works that, despite the improvisatory suggestion of the titles, are deftly structured three-part works, typically with a sparkling fountain of virtuosity framing a mellow middle. Piano music doesn’t get much more romantic, in the free-flowing sense, than this, but Zayas resisted the common temptation to over-interpret, keeping her use of rubato all the more effective. Again, it’s her keen sense of architecture that made the pieces so compelling.

The Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor (incorrectly identified on the program) is the piece that gave us the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” and I’m sure I had the assistance of everyone in the audience in mentally singing along to the piece. And the Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major closed the Chopin set with a more ambitious set of contrasts, almost a miniature sonata in its breadth.

Zayas closed the concert with Liszt’s breathtaking arrangement of the waltz from Gounod’s Faust, a familiar tune that probably would like the pianist to bring four hands to the keyboard but settles for two extremely deft ones. The audience was on its feet before the last chord died out, and Zayas obliged by encoring with a Schumann song, the gentle “Widmung,” its flavor preserved in another Liszt arrangement.

More such concerts are planned for the Johnstown area, which would make this a venue worth the small journey.

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