XRIJF Day 3 – Eldar
Seeing a show in Hatch Hall is always something I look forward to, especially in the XRIJF. A “tunable” room, Hatch’s walls and structure are malleable, and can be adjusted for whatever performance comes its way. Throughout the year, Hatch sees time for both solo piano and chamber music, but during the XRIJF, it’s solo piano only. It’s always a treat to hear incoming musicians talk about how much they enjoy Rochester, and every solo pianist who plays in Hatch has the glint of an excited youth when addressing the crowd about the sound.
It was no different for Eldar, who filled the house to the brim. Humble and effusive in praise to Rochester, the 29-year-old Eldar brought his absolute “A” game to the 6pm show. The appeal of Hatch is hearing how the hall brings out the subtlety of the piano, from how the hammer hits the string to how it resonates off the lid. That said, Eldar brought anything but subtlety to his slightly-over-an-hour set that was pedal to the medal speed throughout.
Fortunately I was able to get a seat that had clear view of his hands, and the view didn’t disappoint. His hands were almost a constant blur, whether pressing chords and single line melodies with his fingers or hammering down parallel chords and octaves with his wrist and arms, Eldar’s endurance throughout was staggering. I exchanged many looks of bewilderment with those sitting next to me, and there were plenty of moments that I had to stop taking notes to look on in amazement as he throttled onward.
He started off the set with some kind words about Rochester and Hatch, and asked how many had seen him before. About a a fifth of the crowd cheered, and he sat down and set to work on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia.” Keeping in tradition with the tune, he started with the iconic prelude bass line, and used it as development tool throughout. Staying within the bebop feel of the tune, Eldar progressed through the tune fusing the recognizable melody with complex and very active harmonizations with a healthy does of bebop licks.
He then took an unexpected turn and moved to the rock world, playing the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Starting with a more subdivided take of the original guitar riff, complete with the high pedal tone, Eldar used Impressionist planing chords underneath. Compared to “Tunisia,” Eldar kept the iconic melody more distinguished and above the orchestral accompaniment of his left hand. In the “solo” section, Eldar lightened the texture, and brought back a more “swingified” melody before ending with a Romantic-era sweeping harp gesture (he would end many of his tunes this way).
Going back to the standards, he did a cold open into the most altered version of “No Moon At All.” This tune, made famous by Nat King Cole, actually has chord changes based on Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, so I was surprised to hear him change that, given his classical background. But instead of going Bach, he went Beethoven, crafting a highly motivic piece using the opening measure frequently, and altering it throughout the piece. Employing many texture and time feel changes, Eldar made this one sound like his own composition.
“Blackjack” was the name of the next tune, which Eldar wrote after a trip to Las Vegas, which he “doesn’t suggest.” This original featured a lot of accompaniment in the middle of the piano, which started off as the melody, and then became the main riff. This piece was a showcase in his non-stop ferocity, and he seemed to only use the (brief) lighter and softer sections to tease us, or to keep us on our toes. Even during this sections however, although his articulation changed from “attack” to “blossom,” the intensity was still the same.
The next two were the standard “Willow Weep for Me,” and an original composition “Lullaby Fantasia.” In “Willow,” he employed a rocking quarter note left hand accompaniment with colorful minor and diminished chords followed by more open major chords, and a floating melody above. “Lullaby” combined a mysterious melody with a river-like rolling accompaniment, and his penchant for using a section of a melody as a motif.
Following that was a piece that made me write on my notepad: “It’s nonsensical how fast he can play.” A series of jazz variations on a Bach prelude, Eldar combined Classical and Baroque changes with the color and sensibility of jazz, creating something entirely different. It was at this point that his technique was finally starting to make sense to the audience, as barely audible sighing broke out in spurts.
After thunderous applause (which followed every tune), Eldar explained his fascination with technology, specifically the player piano, which he described as both seeming futuristic and old at the same time. He then put together an arrangement of “Body and Soul” in the style of a player piano, which is fitting, because the man plays with the endurance of a machine.
The last three, including the encore that followed a raucous standing ovation, treated the audience to melds of the Great American Songbook, bebop, blues, and rag time. Eldar didn’t announce the first tune, and truth be told, I missed the title of the second. I’m not sure it mattered though, because his activity and speed of ideas was amazing, and he somehow was moving faster than at the beginning of the show. The crazy part is that it didn’t really look like he was really trying until the last two tunes. I can only surmise that because that’s the only time that he face turned red and showed any kind of strain.
On the whole, Eldar’s performance was mind-blowing, especially from a musician still in his twenties. He combined incredible speed and technique, with exceptional motivic development, while displaying knowledge, understanding, and application of the styles that came before him, from Bach to bebop.