Concert Review, April 15, 2011, 
Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

Apr 15, 2011

Chicago's chef Grant Achatz has inspired many of his fans with the inventive approach to cuisine at his restaurant, Alinea, where he emotionally disarms his customers by confronting them with dishes that utilize all the senses to invoke wonder and amusement – feelings that often get buried beneath the grime of everyday adult concerns. One of Achatz's fans, pianist Michael Kirkendoll, decided to take his adoration one step further last Saturday night through performing an entire solo recital (presented by the outstanding PianoForte Foundation) "inspired by" his experience at Alinea, "...not only the food itself, but also the emotional context, innovation, and philosophy of the restaurant and chef Grant Achatz." At the restaurant, one experiences a long sequence of small courses that are presented in a specific order to produce an overarching flow. In his introduction, Kirkendoll spoke about a similar “flow” of musical selections, mostly single movements from larger works, or brief freestanding pieces, in place of a more “meaty” sonata main “course.” His ideology folded in on him, however, as he performed two quite extensive (“meaty”) pieces at the conclusion of the concert – more on that in a bit.

What I loved about Kirkendoll’s idea was the immediacy afforded by the sequences of brevity. In rapid-fire succession a movement from a work by Ligeti (20th/21st century) was followed by Scarlatti (Baroque), and then Rzewski (20th/21st century), and it was searingly evident how the music was stylistically apposed and juxtaposed, how it was different, and yet – with over 300 years difference – similar. As a historian, I also appreciated that his method of presenting “bites” of works is historically grounded in the early 19th century when it wasn’t unusual to attend a concert where the first movement from a symphony would be followed by a string quartet, then followed by the second movement, then a vocal aria, and so on. So, throughout the evening we heard a little Beethoven here (Op. 109, mvt I), a little Brahms there (Intermezzo, Op. 117), some Schoenberg (selections from Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19), Ives (The Alcotts, from Sonata No. 2), more Ligeti (all from Musica Ricercata), and more Scarlatti (various sonatas).

As the evening wore on, it became apparent to me Mr. Kirkendoll has a very specific gift for interpreting 20th and 21st century works. I have spent a lot of time around musicians who perform – nearly exclusively – modern works, or newly commissioned works, and very often their minds are hard-wired in a specifically abstract way that allows them to make glorious interpretive sense of seemingly far flung ideas and phrases. However, if you take that creativity, and put it to task on a work more traditional in form with harmonic structures and tensions built in, they seem somewhat lost. That, I believe, is the case with Mr. Kirkendoll whose interpretations of both the Beethoven and Brahms were laborious, nearly squashing the relationships between the harmonies, and rhythms, with the weight of (philosophical and intellectual, not technical) effort rather than allowing them to be revealed, and flourish. However, his presentation of Bruno Mantovani’s Jazz Connotation was brilliant. The highlight of the evening was definitely his take on Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra, a physically demanding narrative work named after the Allen Ginsberg poem that requires the pianist to recite text as well as the poem in full. Both these last programmed works seemed rather out of place after such a long flow of short works (and I think the program would have kept its cohesion more if the Mantovani would have been simply omitted), but to hear Mr. Kirkendoll perform Sunflower Sutra was an absolute wonder. Rarely have I seen any musician able to deliver text and poetry- all whilst playing insanely difficult music - with such natural dramatic sensibility.