Jenny Lin and Lura Johnson at the American Art Museum
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 03:19PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • July 12, 2011

To hear either Lura Johnson or Jenny Lin play the piano is one of life’s great pleasures, and when they perform together — as they did Sunday afternoon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — it’s an event not to be missed. 

Jenny LinThe two are members of the new-music ensemble Verge, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that they put together a high-powered traversal of the 20th century, touching on everything from early atonality and tone clusters to Gershwin-flavored lyricism and thorny modernist etudes. And, as you’d expect, the virtuosity was stunning; but even more impressive was how the two drew a range of highly disparate works into a coherent, fascinating whole.

Seated together at the museum’s newly refurbished Steinway grand piano, the two opened with three gentle Bach transcriptions by the Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag; a quiet meditation to settle the ears. But Johnson quickly kicked the 20th century into gear with Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke, Op. 19 — aphoristic miniatures from 1913 that leave tonality in the dust with almost effortless grace — and Lin raised the stakes with a scorching, absolutely bravura performance of the Danse Infernale from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

Lura JohnsonThe pianists traded back and forth all afternoon; Johnson played four of Curtis Curtis-Smith’s lyrical, engaging Twelve Etudes for Piano (2000) and two of Henry Cowell’s early tone-cluster pieces (profoundly gentle and introspective, despite being played with the forearms), while Lin turned in incisive readings of three of Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. The Ligeti works are absolute masterpieces, and Lin’s powerful, precise technique more than did them justice.

But it may have been Kurtag’s 1975 “Jatekok/Games” (Book IV), which Lin and Johnson played together, that really stole the show. Ostensibly written for children, these beguiling and elegantly distilled works are adult in every way: the intimate thoughts of one of the century’s most intriguing musical minds.

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