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Review: A Pianist Is the Muse for a Flood of Zorn


At the end of August, John Zorn’s record label, Tzadik, released “Encomia,” 43 minutes of mostly solo-piano music by Mr. Zorn, performed by Stephen Gosling. (He’s joined on one track by the violinist Chris Otto.)

So when Mr. Gosling came to the Miller Theater at Columbia University on Tuesday, for the first of the theater’s free early-evening “pop-up” concerts this season, you might have expected him to touch on at least one piece from “Encomia” — if only to promote the new release a bit.

He did not. Mostly because Mr. Zorn writes so quickly. Mr. Gosling was at the Miller to give the premiere of an even newer work for piano, “18 Studies From the Later Sketchbooks of J.M.W. Turner (1841-1845).”

The hourlong work made good on the Miller’s advertising, which promised “études, preludes, color studies, seascapes, moonscapes and nocturnes” inspired by the English artist. It also offered a sense of Mr. Zorn adapting some tried and true methods for a pianist who can embrace the full span of his style — from hardcore dissonances to disarmingly gentle melodies.

Mr. Gosling’s feeling and facility for Mr. Zorn’s music was consistently impressive. In the first study, his hand-over-hand playing across all the piano’s registers brought a lulling quality to the music’s gentle dynamics. But he also found just the right punch for the percussive interjections that Mr. Zorn inserts into this not-quite-minimalist procession, keeping a quality of steely edge.

Several of the nervier studies featured rambunctious, whipsaw conclusions to melodic statements — often ending in one of the elaborate chords Mr. Zorn favors. And the 10th study had a madman-machinist design worthy of the player-piano canons of Conlon Nancarrow.

But there were also other moods. The relatively calm sensibility of The Gnostic Trio — one of Mr. Zorn’s many, many other projects — made an appearance in the fourth and 14th studies. (That is, assuming I counted correctly: In keeping with the laid-back air of the Miller’s pop-up concerts, no programs, or titles for individual studies, were provided.)

Mr. Gosling is far from new to Zorn, having appeared on the composer’s records for over a decade. But the speed with which Mr. Zorn has been writing works with this pianist in mind is worthy of notice. (This includes a recent piece for Mr. Gosling and the soprano Barbara Hannigan, heard at this summer’s Ojai Music Festival and coming to the Park Avenue Armory in October.)

The only danger is that it may all be coming too quickly for listeners to digest. After Tuesday’s concert, I returned to a piece on “Encomia” called “Nijinsky.” It’s an often stormy composition that also includes a minute of pristine serenity, tucked into its middle. The album it appears on is just a few weeks old, but at Mr. Zorn’s rate of productivity, it will soon be classic repertory.

Stephen Gosling

Performed on Tuesday at the Miller Theater, Manhattan.


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