Saturday 21 July 2018

The pianist who's made the street her concert hall

George Hamilton

It was the weekend, a glorious summer's afternoon in Vienna, the sun still high in the sky. In Graben Street, a broad swathe of pedestrian heaven that sweeps away from the soaring ecclesiastical eloquence of St Stephen's to tempt and tease with its cafés and cathedrals of commerce, the sound of music began to swell.

Slowly at first, then picking up pace, this was the unmistakable sound of a piano. Heads turned, eyes found their target. Slap bang in the middle of this oasis of self-indulgence, there was a somewhat out-of-tune upright, and a diminutive lady coaxing from it music you could not ignore.

We joined what was by now a sizeable crowd. The hands were dancing, the music was compelling. For this was the fabulous Hungarian Rhapsody, the second of 19 that Franz Liszt composed, celebrating all that is excellent about the folk music of this region, devised to put it up to the performer. Show me you can play, it says.

SoRyang Joo is a prize-winning pianist. From Seoul in South Korea, she studied in Germany and Austria. She settled in Vienna, hoping to make it in the concert hall, but that's no easy career path. Most would sustain their ambition and support it by teaching others how to play. SoRyang chose to take her musical message to the streets.

It was undoubtedly a high-risk strategy, a bit like walking the high wire without a safety net.

While her audience gathers in the round, there are all manner of distractions. There are no church bells in a concert hall, no pavement retreats, all clinking coffee cups and chatter.

Street entertainers all engage in a very personal way with those they attract, but there's a much greater intensity about a solo performance of classical music. And of all the piano solos to attempt where there's nowhere to hide, the capricious fluctuations of the Rhapsody Number Two must make it one of the most challenging, if also one of the most appealing.

From a slow and somewhat sombre start, it's not long before it's up and away whirling into a maelstrom of intricate themes, increasing the tempo all the time. It's music with which you're sure to be familiar, even if you've never heard of Franz Liszt, for its frenetic energy made it ideal cartoon music, and it's featured in a host of them, involving such luminaries as Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. It's fast, it's fun, and it's catchy, "a kaleidoscope of the human soul in all its diverse emotions", as the composer himself put it.

SoRyang's audience, packed around her rickety upright parked between the shopfronts and the statues, attracted by the familiarity of the music, was completely captivated by the energy of her playing. Spontaneous applause greeted the dramatic finale, and the coins and the notes soon followed.

In honour of over 500 performances on the streets around the cathedral, Preiser Records Vienna, and the Austrian piano maker Bösendorfer set up a concert grand in her favourite spot in Graben, and recorded the results (PR 90745). It's a fantastic way to enjoy the music, and there's even a video of one of the 11 tracks, a blistering performance of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu, which is on YouTube ( watch?v=ZBCklVxam-A).

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday morning at 10.30

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