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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Music Club Honors the Keyboard

The Santa Barbara Music Club will present its first free concert of the new year at 3 p.m. Saturday in its accustomed venue of the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Central Library, 40 E. Anapamu St.

Ferrucio Busoni was a famous pianist before he was a famous Bach transcriber.
Ferrucio Busoni was a famous pianist before he was a famous Bach transcriber.

The club doesn’t always name its programs, but it has named this one. It is called “Pianofest!,” and it will star three brilliant pianists among whom we are lucky enough to live.

First, local treasure Betty Oberacker will perform Ferruccio Busoni’s famous transcription of that baroque monument for organ, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C-Major, BWV 564 by Johann Sebastian Bach. Then, Robert Else will interpret four Préludes by Claude Debussy: “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” “The Hills of Anacapri,” “The Sunken Cathedral” and “Minstrels.” Finally, Aaron Wilk will play Igor Stravinsky’s Three Movements from “Pétrouchka.

Starting, I think, with Ludwig van Beethoven and reaching its extended apogee between Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, the virtuoso pianist commanded the center stage for music lovers all over the world. Here was one player who could summon up an entire orchestra from 88 keys, who could thrill and exhort, who could draw us into enchanted reverie or lead us through a witch’s Sabbath — all without electric appliances. Salon or concert hall, the virtuoso pianist dominated our musical imaginations.

The piano was also the composer’s instrument of choice. “One score is always on my piano, ‘Mahler’s ‘Resurrection,’” Richard Strauss wrote. “I never cease to learn from it.”

“If you came to my house,” Philip Glass told me, “all you would see is a piano, nothing else.” So much was this the case that when a composer didn’t compose on the piano — Hector Berlioz, say, or Paul Hindemith — he felt compelled to announce the fact. From Bach through Glass, the composer who was not also a notable performer on the keyboard was a rare exception.

Busoni (1866-1924) is remembered today chiefly for his Bach transcriptions, which are so brilliant that he is usually given hyphenated credit for the work. While he lived, he was wildly famous as a piano virtuoso. Yet he was also a maestro in the educational sense, and his pupils, such as Kurt Weill, revered him. Finally, he was a very great composer. If you don believe me, try his majestic Piano Concerto.

According to the Music Club, Stravinsky prepared these piano reductions himself, for the pianist Arthur Rubinstein — hallowed be his name! — which illustrates another function of the virtuoso, now obviated by the recording. Piano reductions of orchestral scores were often the way great works got distributed, it being expensive and complicated to mount an orchestral concert, and relatively simple to put a piano on a stage (though finding a great pianist to play it could run into money).

Pianists and opera singers were often a bridge between classical and popular culture, with Risë Stevens or Rubinstein showing up as themselves in movies. Relive those days, thanks to the Music Club.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are his own.

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