John Ferguson, pianist

January 11, 2016
"Ferguson Revitalizes at BLMA"

Keeping in mind there would be young people as well as adults in attendance Sunday, the Brookline Library Music Association presented pianist John Ferguson in a revitalizing one-hour program hopscotching from this era to that mostly via shorter pieces. Even before an inviting 2:30 start time, the music room upstairs at the Brookline Public Library was already standing-room-only.

Tall and slender with healthy sized hands, John Ferguson took to the seven-foot Steinway with fleet feet, transforming it into an expressive instrument beyond expectation. The further into this unusual program we went, the more of a fairytale it became. Enchanting, yes, fetching, even more so, elevating indeed.

This virtuoso who is something far more sits at the Steinway entirely focused, almost as if in his private music room. He thoroughly eschews any show of bravura. Almost miraculously, he has not gotten caught up in the high-speed, high-powered chase that has become the way of a herd of players these days.

You would meet John Ferguson through his playing, be it Bach, Chopin, Debussy, or Stockhausen. Whatever he played had that Ferguson touch. Lucidity and kindness immediately come to mind. When is the last time you encountered kindness—compassion, gentleness, benevolence, thoughtfulness, and humanity—in a classical music performer.

While Bach’s Contrapunctus IV from Die Kunst der Fuge might have been a bit soft around the edges, there were moments that reminded one of the composer’s supposed words, “I write music to the glory of God and for the recreation of the mind.”

Liszt’s transcription of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony followed Bach. The poetry of structure, of edifice, was visible everywhere. Could this inspiration have come from that body-hugging kind of precision of a German orchestra?

And of all things, on the heels of late Beethoven, there appeared a tiny, fragile prelude of Debussy, Le Canope. Ferguson moved the tempo along, flirted with the treble fineries, and for the harmonies brought a simple luxuriance.

Back to finger-bending proficiency with Chopin’s Etude in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 5, and as far away from the galloping horse effect that comes all too naturally to many aspiring pianists, Ferguson rerouted the short-long rhythms to dryer sounding grounds with gracefulness and a plainer elegance.

Ferguson also was fully unfussy about returning to the piano after a short break; how refreshing—music matters. Again from memory as during his entire program, he launched his fairly diverse crowd of listeners into that four-note chord Stockhausen has the pianist repeat 142 times, then after a long diminuendo, 43 more repetitions, this in Klavierstück IX. With these many repetitions Ferguson created a melting kaleidoscope, so to speak, each of the four notes subtly shifting in amplitude and in overtones. Shocking as it may seem, Ferguson made attractiveness out of darkness and beauty out of sound piling. You could have heard a pin drop, believe it or not!

Another fay of an entry, Radiohead’s “Let Down,” made it onto Ferguson’s refreshing program. The arrangement by Christopher O’Riley for me did not catch onto reality, instead made me think of an inferior Adams’ China Gates. Too much of one key, and those minimalist pitch penchants, finally wore on into tedium. Good, though, that we got to hear this piece.

With Ligeti’s Lescalier du diable, (The Devil’s Staircase) the audience unknowingly took charge, spontaneously breaking into applause seconds into the final chord that is to be held for a minute—yes, that long! The wild flight of syncopations and feverish chromaticism came with a shattering lightness, again, darkness yielding to a scary transparency. Usually fatigued after this nightmare of a piano piece, I felt energized.

And from the touching Brahms Romanze Op. 118, No. 5, more was to come. The middle of the Romanze at first was pastoral greenery, then turned sparkling streams, and lastly to the joy that comes with a brilliant blue sky. Ferguson indeed found something here!

The cogency of Ferguson’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 by Liszt had the audience, now focused very much as Ferguson, loudly saluting this unassuming gem.

True to his form, Ferguson returned unassumingly with a surprising and richly gratifying encore: Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Bach’s E Major Violin Partita, “the first movement only.”

August 7, 2010
"Beethoven as Titan"

        It is unclear how much thought went into Richard Wagner's metaphor of Ludwig van Beethoven as a Titan.  The specific context of the source imagines Beethoven in a struggle of superhuman proportions waged against the Olympians but does not seem to have given much thought to why the Greeks conceived of that struggle in the first place.  Basically, this was a "foundation myth" in which the qualities of humanity (as embodied by the Olympians) would prevail over the unchecked primal forces of nature (represented by the Titans).  Thus, if Wagner knew what he was talking about, he was describing Beethoven as one of those unchecked primal forces of nature, whose realm was, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, "beyond good and evil."

        Setting aside Wagner's ideologies, listeners might do well to approach the experience of listening to Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" piano sonata in B-flat major (Opus 106) with the Titan metaphor in mind.  If this composition is not a raw struggle, it is at least an energetic confrontation between the expanded scope of sonorities afforded by the piano of Beethoven's day and the traditions of compositional structure that had accumulated over the hundred years preceding Beethoven's work on this sonata in 1818.  Beyond the many challenges this music poses to any performer, the score thwarts listener expectations at every turn;  and, when properly executed, those thwarted expectations can be as much of a shock today as they were when Beethoven's contemporaries first heard this music.

        In terms of Beethoven's later efforts, this is very much a forward-looking composition, particularly from an architectural point of view.  Three of its four movements involve durations of extended proportions, while the second scherzo movement flies by so quickly that it is barely noticed, providing only the slightest breather between the violently impetuous Allegro, assaulting the ear with its death-defying intervallic leaps, and the Adagio sostenuto, which almost reduces the flow of time to the Zen stillness of a crater lake.  In terms of clock time, several of Joseph Haydn's piano sonatas could have been played to completion before we arrive at the final movement, in which Beethoven firmly plants his personal stamp on "the art of fuguing."  (Note that, when we replace this final fugue with a choral setting of German poetry, we find that the overall architecture of Opus 106 provides the same plan that returns in Beethoven's Opus 125, the ninth symphony in D minor.)  These are, indeed, primal forces of nature, checked only by traditions of composition and there only minimally.

        In his Old First Concerts recital last night at Old First Church, pianist John Ferguson approached these primal forces with no sign of fear and a firm foundation of technical skill.  Hollywood types might say that this was a performance in which he released his inner kraken, even if Clash of the Titans has virtually nothing to do with how the Ancient Greeks conceived of the Titans.  More important is that he never allowed the listener (even one familiar with Opus 106 through past performances) to settle into comfortable expectations of what would happen next.  By establishing his own point of view on the differentiating qualities of each of the four movements, Ferguson served up edge-of-the-seat suspense almost two hundred years after this composition was completed.

        To provide a sort of "calm before the storm," Ferguson preceded his intermission with the Opus 28 sonata in D major, sometimes called the "Pastoral," completed in 1801.  There may be more of a sense of "comfortable expectations" in this composition;  but it still offers its own share of surprises.  Most interesting may be the Scherzo movement, whose eccentricities anticipate the approach to ternary form that would receive further development in Beethoven's published bagatelles.  There is also an abundance of that quality of keen wit, which Beethoven recognized so readily in Haydn and could then turn to his own advantage.  Thus, it revealed the Beethoven of 1801 exploring twists on tradition in good humor almost two decades before those explorations would take the more Titanic turn that led to Opus 106.

        In last night's performance Ferguson presented himself very much as a pianist for the serious listener.  He made a convincing case that there is always more for such listeners to discover in the music of the nineteenth century, and he made that case with an affable but highly industrious performing style.  I suspect that he would be just as effective a guide for any other period of music history.


August 25, 2000

“Pianist Plays Old, New, His Own--All Brilliantly”


Impressive qualities of pianistic brilliance, strength, intellect and sensitivity marked the concert by pianist-composer John Ferguson in the First Methodist Church Wednesday night, and they were brought to bear on a program of extraordinary variety and interest.

For one thing, it reached all the way back to Beethoven and Liszt and was as contemporary as today’s John Zorn, to say nothing of the premiere of one of Ferguson’s pieces.  But spanning two centuries is not that unusual.  This program was also a rare trip to a near-forgotten tradition: piano transcriptions of symphonies.  The first half of Ferguson’s recital was Franz Liszt’s transcription for two hands of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

It is common to regard such works as a way to display the soloist’s virtuosity, and often they were merely that.  But Liszt was a formidable composer in his own right, and one with a conscience.  He was the greatest virtuoso of the 19th century, but to him, Beethoven was “sacred,” and when his publishers persuaded him to transcribe all nine Beethoven symphonies, he wrote that he wanted to transfer to the piano not only the “grand outlines” of the originals but also their “numerous fine details and smaller traits.”

You could appreciate both Liszt’s conscience and the demands of his virtuosity as Ferguson pursued his tremendous, 45-minute task.

Beethoven’s Seventh is one of his most popular.  This was like hearing it anew--a fascinating experience.  Its persistent rhythmic character is underlined by the essentially percussive nature of the piano.  Passages full of notes recall the fullness of the orchestra’s sound.  The course of the work is unchanged, but here and there are inner phrases--a little rising figure in the left hand supporting the first theme in the first movement, for instance--that pique the attention as is one had never heard them before.  But they were always there, of course.

The piano’s sound accented the dance-like bounce of the Trio in the Scherzo.  And the finale--here Ferguson braved virtuoso heights--was a hurricane of music with tiny pockets of calm, finally blowing itself out in the last climax.

The performance was a heroic success all around.

John Zorn (born 1953) is an avant-garde composer with his foot in so many camps you can hardly locate him.  Jazz (he plays alto sax), rock, lounge music, the Kronos Quartet, film, modern composition--he ties into them all.

Ferguson played his “Carny,” which seemed, in its 13-minute span, to epitomize eclecticism.  Jabbed notes at the very top of the keyboard, rolling arpeggios, bursts of merriment serial intervals, boogie woogie, pretty pop chords, bangs and trills, wild spurts of virtuosity--it had an abundance of contrasts.  Much better than a roller-coaster ride, it left you wondering where you might be going next.  Ferguson’s program note found “structural pillars” and a progress toward form; at first hearing, it was hard to find a plan, but I don’t doubt that it was there.  In any case, it was a stimulating ride.

Ferguson’s “Piano Piece No. 4,” 10 minutes long, seemed a much more coherent work, holding the attention with a steady appeal.  It begins quietly, with spare melodic writing that suggests thoughtfulness.  Strong bass chords support a growing excitement in the upper register.  Brief but fiercely felt fugal writing gives way to a return of the opening music and some beautiful, rising chord progressions.  Lows and highs come together, gather forces and lead to a high soft, ending that disappears into silence.  It’s a work one would gladly hear again, and it was played with the utmost care.

Three very short, contrasting pieces by Jean Sibelius, titled “Kyllikki,” also were played.



September 18, 2000

“A Robust Workout for Fleet Ferguson”



John Ferguson is young, tall, blond, and earnest-looking--the image might almost be that of a Victorian missionary--and it was indeed a kind of proselytizing zeal--along with fleet fingers, power, and a fine dynamic control--that made his recital at the Boston Conservatory Thursday night quite a success in its determinedly off-center way.

If you’d forgotten what the program was to be and had come in late, chances are that for a minute or so you’d have wondered which particular middle-period Beethoven sonata Ferguson was having at so robustly.  Of course it was not a sonata at all, but Franz Liszt’s mighty effort to gather the totality of Beethoven’s orchestral textures within reach of a pianist’s mere, sorely taxed, and vulnerable 10 fingers.  Amazingly, this seemed to work a good two-thirds of the time.  Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” transcribed for piano, packs more of a wallop nowadays than the original does.  Something similar may be true of the Seventh.  Ferguson’s sforzandos meant business, coming out of nowhere and posing a threat to any loose plaster that might be around.  Viola parts that only violists get to hear also came out of nowhere, but much more quietly.  All this served to demonstrate anew Liszt’s much-remarked genius in orchestrating for piano.  And, as well, the terrible demands he makes on an executant--endless stamina and a large reach head the list.  Though Ferguson’s playing in the finale wasn’t exactly note perfect--he did tire some--it steered triumphantly clear of the Laocoon-like tangle one feared, its bacchanalian spirit intact.

All very interesting, you say, but was there any “normal” music on this program?  Well, no.  The next item was an instance of Sibelius’s writing for the piano, usually dismissed as a load of salon fripperies dashed off for ready cash.  By the sound of them, the Three Lyric Pieces “Kyllikki,” Op. 41, are an exception.  The characteristic Sibelian tone of curdled passion and desolated lyricism (a frustrated sweet tooth, it’s been mooted) was written all over them.  A neat project for a course in orchestration, surely--some passages cried out for an oboe solo.

In John Zorn’s “Carny” (1989) the stylistic snippets came from everywhere at a speed close to that of an MTV video.  This was another workout for the pianist, but not as satisfying.  It could have ended anywhere.  That it defiantly didn’t raised suspicious memories of the audience-baiting that New York City loft culture of the 1980s used to indulge itself in.  Ferguson’s own “Piano Piece No. 4” was imaginatively and beautifully written for the instrument, its sure-handing pacing of events proclaiming a distinctive authorial voice.  As a composer, too, John Ferguson is the genuine article.



January, 2002

“Babbitt and Fluxus”


Babbitt and fluxus on the same recital?  For pianist extraordinaire John Ferguson, it’s all worthy stuff worth doing.  His well-conceived evening of piano solo music on September 13 ran a wide range of styles, from 20th-century transcriptions of Bach to Romantic novelties to the above-mentioned dichotomy.  It’s true that Babbitt’s Semi-Simple Variations (1956) is a tiny gem weighty with information--but too many pianists get wrapped up in the details of this music, missing the work’s overall charm.  Ferguson’s playing brought out the piece’s winsome demeanor, eye for architecture, and sense of line while still respecting the printed page.  The Fluxus selections (all dating from 1960-1964), while lacking the same level of crafty depth, demonstrate a similar level of brevity and friendliness to that in the serial master’s piece, Look by Ben Vautier, Piano Piece for David Tudor by La Monte Young, and Piano Piece, 3 Piano Pieces, and Incidental Music by George Brecht total approximately 8 minutes of music.  The first of these is especially clever, a funny send-up of the notion of piano as furniture, not musical instrument; here, Ferguson placed a vase of flowers on the closed lid and spent the piece studiously admiring the blossoms from many vantagepoints.  His performances of Jean Sibelius’s curious post-Romantic entry Sonatina Op. 67 No. 1 (1912) and Arnold Schoenberg’s hyper-expressionist masterwork Six Little Piano Pieces Op. 19 (written one year before the Sibelius!) were sensitive in sound and flawlessly executed in technique.  And given the horrific terrorist outrage of two days prior, his selection of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of The Star Spangled Banner as encore (played sans jingoist hype) was highly appropriate and welcome.


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