The biography page on Aryo Wicaksono’s Web site says nothing about his origins as to either place of birth or ancestry. Between what I know about names and the activities enumerated in his biography, I would take him to be of Indonesian ancestry, if not born there. At the same time, the biographical statement for his recital today in the Noontime Concerts™ series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral cited him as “the first Western classical music artist to hold a visiting Artist-in-Residence position at the American University of Sharjah, in Sharia, UAE.” There is no doubt that the repertoire he chose for today’s program was decidedly Western, but there was also a bit of Indonesia thrown in for good measure.
Most important is that Wicaksono is a virtuoso talent in the Western sense of the word. The bulk of his program was occupied by Franz Liszt (both composition and transcription) and Johann Sebastian Bach. However, there was also a fascinating conjunction of Sergei Rachmaninoff with an Indonesian melody and the world premiere of a short composition by Joshua Saulle. Wicaksono’s command of this repertoire offered an excellent combination of solid technique and sensitive expressiveness. He could approach both Liszt and Rachmaninoff with full intensity when it was required, but he also understood when a lighter touch was more consistent with the demands of the score. Similarly his approach to Bach’s counterpoint disclosed the necessary understanding of the interplay of voices, always shaped by the capabilities of a modern grand piano, rather than trying to imitate a more limited period instrument.
The Bach selections both began and ended the program. Wicaksono began with BWV 910, designated as a toccata in F-sharp minor. Like many of the works bearing this label, the composition begins with a free-form fantasy (the toccata portion), which leads into an adagio. The adagio then segues into a fugue in 4/4 time; but what appears to be the final cadence of that fugue then launches into a second fugue in 6/8 time, which then concludes the entire composition with a toccata coda. Wicaksono’s approach to touch effectively characterized each of the components of this overall architecture while, at the same time, establishing the seamless connections specified in Bach’s score. BWV 910 is probably one of Bach’s earliest keyboard compositions; but, under Wicaksono’s sure-handed interpretation, it proved to be as stimulating as any of the more familiar works.
Such familiarity could be found in Wicaksono’s encore for the afternoon, the C major prelude and fugue from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 870. Most listeners are probably familiar with the basic architecture of this collection, as well as the extensive diversity that Bach teases out of both what can be labeled “prelude” and the approaches to imitation that characterize fugue. This encore was presented after a program rich with diversity and innovative thinking; but, however familiar BWV 870 may have been to many listeners, it was executed with a freshness that encouraged appreciation for Bach’s capacity for invention.
The Liszt portion of the program began with his transcription of the “Liebestod” that concludes Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. This concluding scene offers Wagner’s orchestral writing at its richest. Before Isolde gives up her dying breath, there are 29 staves on the score page, many of which are for independent pairs of instruments. One would think that reducing all of this to two hands of a piano keyboard would be nothing short of foolhardy; but, when he really applied himself to his work, Liszt could distill from that complexity all that was necessary for ten figures to capture the grandeur of it all. There is no doubt that this transcription is more music than circus stunt, and Wicaksono’s command of its complexity made a convincing case for just where all that music was. The transcription may never approach the full force of an opera-house experience. However, it has been designed to connote that experience as effectively as can be imagined when the score is executed by the right pair of hands; and Wicaksono definitely had the chops to do justice to Liszt’s accomplishment.
By the same count he was equally at home with the first of the “Mephisto” waltzes, which is also practically orchestral in its conception. This may have been one of those platforms on which Liszt could flamboyantly display his own virtuosity, but it is also a musical evocation of diabolic forces. Wicaksono rode through the aggressive dynamics and abrupt mood swings with a sure pair of hands, again making it clear that, beneath all of the virtuosic display lay a solid foundation of musical competence. The same could be said for his account of one of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 39 Études-Tableaux, which seamlessly followed a more transparent account of embellishments on an Indonesian melody (Jaya Suprana’s “Tembang Alit”). These might seem to be unrelated but came across as a pair of complementary strategies in how relatively simple core material can be extensively elaborated.
Finally, the program included the world premiere of Saulle’s short piano composition, “Portrait of a Lady.” Saulle’s Web site offers little background about this work, which was completed last year. The title does not seem to indicate any connection to Henry James’ novel of the same name or, for that matter, the work of poets who later appropriated the title, such as T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Rather, I would speculate that this was Saulle’s own take on the approach to musical portraiture that so interested Virgil Thomson. Like Thomson’s own efforts, it is an exercise in miniature form with musical values that do not necessarily require knowledge of the subject who “sat” for the portrait (and, in Thomson’s case, his subjects really did sit). Saulle’s composition is a mood piece built around the elaboration of a few basic thematic elements, a far cry from the grand scale of the core of Wicaksono’s program, but effective nevertheless.
Taken as a whole, this turned out to be a recital that was as stimulating as it was exciting in its approach to execution.