Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » Pianist Cann pays enthusiastic tribute to Hazel Scott for Washington Performing Arts

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Michelle Cann performed Wednesday night for Washington Performing Arts.

Last year, pianist Michelle Cann became the first African-American appointed to the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music. For the conservatory founded in Philadelphia in 1924, it was a long time in coming.

On Wednesday evening, Cann paid a musical tribute to three extraordinary black pianist-composers who had preceded her, in a recital presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

Officially, the occasion was to mark the centenary of pianist Hazel Scott. Born in Trinidad in 1920, she moved with her parents to New York as a young child. As a singer and jazz pianist, Scott had a flair for the dramatic: you may have seen a film of her playing two pianos simultaneously. She even hosted her own TV show, performing with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, until she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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Scott’s background was as much in classical music as it was in jazz, and she was known for her jazz transcriptions of famous classical pieces. Some of these improvisations were included in his collection, “Swinging the Classics”, of which Cann offered two transcriptions made by another musician from listening to the recording. In the delicious opening of the concert, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor has seen its heavy bass line transformed into a piano stride a la Fats Waller.

In an enthusiastic comment, Cann noted that Scott had played this Rachmaninoff prelude, without its jazz update, during his audition for the Juilliard School. Cann further showed off her own powerful technique in Chopin’s Ballade No. 3, a virtuoso piece that Hazel Scott was known to have performed. Cann’s rendition emphasized poetic phrasing of touch rather than speed or daring feats, but the chromatic leads and loud climaxes still impressed.

Cann included two works by Florence Price, although it is uncertain whether Hazel Scott ever played Price’s music. Cann gave the brooding slow introduction to the E minor Piano Sonata’s first movement a sense of introspection, accentuating the ragtime-like buzz in the wild development section. The coda featured over-the-top flourishes reminiscent of the music of Rachmaninoff, who was Price’s near-contemporary and obviously a major influence on her.

Price tapped into the melodic and harmonic traditions of the spiritual in its slow movement, steeped in syncopated rhythms and bluesy chords. Sometimes you heard allusions to specific spirituals, such as “Give me Jesus”, rather than actual quotes. The third movement dazzles with its rapidly repeating main theme, something like a tarantella, with another nod to Rachmaninoff in the poignant B section. From the way Cann played this sonata, it was easy to see why it had won Price a prize in the 1932 Rodman Wanamaker Music Competition.

For an actual setting of a spiritual, Cann turned to Price’s Negro Fantasy N°1, from 1929, also set in the key of E minor. In the most moving part of the pianist’s quick talk between tracks, Cann sang a verse from the witty “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”, which is used as the theme for the virtuoso variations of this piece. His familiarity with the original tune explained how Cann brought out the melody even in his most complex Lisztian attire.

Price dedicated this piece to another eminent pianist-composer, Margaret Bonds, who had studied with Price and whose family took in Price for some time after her divorce. Cann associated him with a Bonds spiritual framework, Troubled Water, a short work published in 1967 and based on the witty “Wade in the Water”. In a beautiful unifying element, this piece was also in E minor, with the melody recast in shimmering major in the middle section.

If anything, these pieces referencing jazz and spirituals were just as virtuosic as the pieces by Chopin and Rachmaninoff that were juxtaposed to them, maybe even more so. Cann used his own tapping technique to illustrate this point: Scott, Price, and Bonds used American music in a way parallel to the way Chopin and Liszt referenced the folk music of their home countries.

The program came full circle with another of Hazel Scott’s jazzy transcriptions, her absolutely hilarious version of Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. The Hungarian composer’s filigree passages have never been so close to the giddy-fingered antics of Art Tatum. Scott played a version of this arrangement as early as 1941, and it may have been the inspiration for another famous Liszt parody, the 1946 “Cat Concerto” episode of the cartoon. Tom and Jerry.

Washington Performing Arts will announce its 2022-2023 season next month. washingtonperformingarts.org

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