HILARY DEMSKE, PIANO, Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, March 2
This recital was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in my life.
I knew that I was going to see a piano recital by the young Utah Valley University professor Hilary Demske. I knew the recital began at 9:30 p.m. I was expecting some Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt or Mozart, and frankly, I was worried that I would be nodding off by the end. Boy, was I wrong.
Before Demske took the stage, I noticed a toolkit on a spare seat next to the piano and the words Die Winterreise on a projector screen. I thought there was some mistake. Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) is Franz Schubert’s monumental song cycle (24 pieces in total) about a young man who, after his beloved has left him for a wealthier suitor, takes a long trek through the winter.
But this was a piano, not a vocal, recital. I was perplexed until the ushers produced the program notes and I saw that the whole concert was titled “Piano Paraphrases on Schubert’s Winterreise.”
Demske’s choice of the word “paraphrase” is absurdly modest. Her composition is a revelation. She follows the same structure as Schubert’s magnum opus, and she readily borrows melodies and motifs, yet this is anything but a “paraphrase.”
The variety of styles alone that Demske works into her 24 pieces is shocking. Some of the movements are strictly conservative and neo-classical (for example, the helplessly charming “Frühlingstraum”), but a great many rely on extended piano techniques and a thoroughly modern sensibility. Her reinventing of “Der Lindenbaum,” which is easily the most famous song from Die Winterreise, suggested the original piano motifs at times, but they were overshadowed by the sound of a full-on drum set. Somehow, she turned the lower strings into a series of snare and bass drums. Schubert’s subtle and tinkling song suddenly mutated into acoustic techno.
In every instance, these extended techniques furthered the poignancy and beauty of her sprawling tone poem. They were never a gimmick or affectation.
There were many forces at work to make this recital the absolute marvel that it was. For one, Demske played entirely from memory. Just remembering the sequence of the 24 songs would be impressive, let alone their many notes.
And Demske’s technical prowess was both breathtaking and impeccable. She imbued even the most abstract pieces with a shining lyricism while still tackling the most monstrously difficult passages with a deft precision.
Mostly, though, the whole endeavor was boundlessly imaginative.
Not many humans are capable of what Demske has accomplished. Think about it. She took one of the most celebrated works from the classical repertoire and successfully reinvented it and turned it into something entirely different but equally exciting, beautiful and profound. I know we all have our hobbies, but come on. Who does this kind of thing in their spare time?
It hurt me that I wasn’t more familiar with Schubert’s original 24 songs, because the ones I was familiar with made the corresponding sections of Demske’s work that much more enjoyable. I have a dream of someday owning a box set recording of the original Winterreise with Demske accompanying someone like Ian Bostridge in the tenor’s role. And in this fantasy box set of mine, the second disc would be Demske’s own composition.
This was her first performance of the full work, and I hope she performs it again – soon. The first thought I had after she concluded with “Der Leiermann” was that I wanted to hear the whole thing again. I need something to hold me over until that recording eventually comes out.