Pianist Ernest So’s latest discoveries

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 17.07.2014

Chinese pianist Ernest So’s eclectic tastes set him apart from the current run of young Asian keyboard superstars now filling concert halls around the world. He has the technical brilliance of the best of them but more importantly he is a discerning student of the repertoire. His discoveries tend to the rare and the neglected.

So’s new CD Latin American Piano Journey (Volume 1) leads off with a Chopinesque Prelùdio by the little known Brazilian Eduardo Dutra, a composer who left virtually no trace of his musical life. Most of his works were lost or destroyed following his death in 1964. Only this Prelùdio is occasionally performed, and So does it masterfully. 

So’s detective work thus far is to be commended. Perhaps his Volume 2, due to be recorded next fall or winter, will reveal more.

Thorough research pervades this disc, featuring an array of composers from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina that were all new to me. So weaves these fresh textures with sensitivity and confidence. 

So is different in other ways. He paid his dues by attending Manhattan School of Music, transferring after one semester to Juilliard where he studied with the late Jacob Lateiner.  “All through my years at the ‘Yard,” he recalls, “he was one of the most important people in my life.”

So’s repertoire includes the standard Beethoven and Mozart warhorses but also major works by, among others, Scriabin, Kapustin, Bortkiewicz, Godowsky, Chasins and even George Antheil. Another of his CDs dusts off the work of two lost French composers of the Impressionist period, Louis Aubert and Lucien Wurmser.

But he has never sought to meld into the Western piano community. He remains involved in Chinese philanthropic works and recently performed to a huge crowd at the 80th anniversary of Guangxi University. 

The dual track of East and West has made him acutely aware of the two-way exchange of musical practices. He considers the West-to-East a “David and Goliath” relationship, with Westerns up against the long history and deep traditions of Chinese music. “And yet,” he tells me, “Western conventions and influence can be seen in every utterance of mainstream Chinese music today, from harmony to structure to orchestration.” In parallel, Western music is commonly available from symphony orchestras in major Chinese cities and prestigious conservatories in Shanghai and Beijing.

East to West influences are better known, as major composers have long borrowed from the Chinese sound world.  Major examples include Godowsky’s Java Suites, Chasin’s Chinese Pieces, and some outstanding works of Alexander Tcherepnin, who married a Chinese woman and, with her prodding, developed an adaptation of the Chinese scale. His 5 Concert Etudes, Opus 52 “Chinese” come to mind. 

Ernest So provides a welcome bridge between the music of East and West. It is a tribute to his versatility that he can achieve this while also researching rare repertoire from South America and France.

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