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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Competitors Impress: Swinging For The Fences At The SAIPC


In the hurly-burly of a Piano competition there are selections that can make or break the chances of a competitor; pieces so difficult or dense that only a master musician can make them work for the audience and more importantly, the judges.

On the Piano this Sunday, we continue with music from the 2012 San Antonio International Piano Competition where two of the pianists "go big" in an effort to convince the judges that they have what it takes to be worthy of the gold medal.


The first work is Claude Debussy's "L'Isle Joyeuse," where the composer doesn't so much write tunes to play, but harmonies for the pianist to negotiate. According to Jim Sampson, this is the harmonic layout of the Isle of Joy.

The central harmonic relationship of the music is contrasting material using the whole tone scale (a Debussy favorite), the Lydian mode (imagine the C major scale with an f-sharp stead of natural) and the Diatonic scale with the Lydian mode as the mediator between the two other scales.


Mention Opus 111 and most music lovers will think of only one work, Beethoven's last piano sonata. In it he challenges the listener and performer alike. Here is contrast, bombasticism and reflection contending for our attention.

Beethoven -- a rule breaker to the end -- does two things that hadn't happened before in sonata form. He turns the trill from a light bit of decoration into a structural unit and two. This music is always a bit of a shock, as he invents what would become Rag Time 80 years before this type of music would appear again.

The boogie-woogie bass and the jazz-like syncopation is reminiscent of Scott Joplin. Alfred Brendel says of the long and winding path of the second and last movement of the c minor sonata: "What is to be expressed here is distilled experience; perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does the mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand."


Maurice Ravel wanted to raise the bar a bit with his three pieces inspired by the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand; he wanted a movement that pianists would say, "That is the hardest piece of piano music in the world." With Scarbo from his "Gaspard de la Nuit," Ravel seems to have achieved his goal.

The first portrait is that of a fickle water sprite Ondine, who wants human companionship, and with a splash runs away. The second movement conjures up the stagnate image of a hanged man, reddened by the setting sun. The air is still and heavy and the only movement is the buzzing of flies, tolling of bells and the chewing of beetles.

The last part is where Ravel wanted to best Balakirev's knuckle-buster, "Islamey." The portrait is of Scarbo, the imp that bedevils us in the night. Imagine waking up and not knowing why. You hope it is a rat at worst, but what is scampering across the floor - climbing up the bed-clothes and grinning at you isn't human and isn't friendly.

For every note of these three amazing works tune in at 5 this Sunday afternoon on KPAC & KTXI for The Piano.

Randy was Texas Public Radio's Classical Music Director until 2013 and the longest-serving employee in Texas Public Radio's history. He hosted the very first airshift on KPAC when the station went on the air at 90.9 FM in San Antonio back in November, 1982.