In her Chopin Society recital, Mihaela Ursuleasa dug into an Aaron Jay Kernis world premiere that alluded to classic jazz and gospel. She even played it twice.
The piano recital was hatched in the romantic era; the society that suckled it is long dead. Yet the institution still stirs, as evidenced by Mihaela Ursuleasa's sterling recital Sunday at Macalester College -- the culmination of the Frederic Chopin Society's 25th-anniversary season.
The center of interest was the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis' "Ballad(e) Out of the Blues: Superstar Étude No. 3," commissioned for the occasion. Invoking Gershwin in its opening moments, the piece, which honors the memory of Kernis' late father, is one of his characteristically complex negotiations with the musical past -- a continuously absorbing "battle with history," as the composer put it in a pre-concert talk. Allusions to classic jazz, gospel and ballad singing mingle in the fluid musical texture. Far from outrunning its materials, the 10-minute piece could easily have been longer.
A stew so American as "Ballad(e)" might seem ill-suited to the Romanian-born, Vienna-trained Ursuleasa. But she embraced the work, capturing its often-improvisatory feel, never permitting its virtuosic elements to obscure its reflective core. And despite visible fatigue, she repeated it as an encore -- an act of advocacy that deepened respect for both performer and piece. (She'll play it again in New York on Saturday.)
In Ursuleasa's Chopin group, preceding intermission, the two scherzos were more sharply characterized than the two ballades (which nonetheless resonated intriguingly with Kernis). The haunted euphoria of the B-flat minor Scherzo, in particular, was conveyed with startling intensity, although here and elsewhere a bit more rhythmic freedom would not have gone amiss. As for Rachmaninoff's nine "Études-tableaux," Op. 39, which filled the second half, the pianist might have done better to cherry-pick the strongest pieces (Nos. 2, 4, 7 and 8, in my view) and to close with something more colorful (or more astringent).
Romania has contributed disproportionately to the ranks of great pianists: Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Radu Lupu come to mind. Ursuleasa, still in her 20s, clearly deserves a place on this list -- and a return engagement.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.