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Album review: Pianist May Phang an excuse to celebrate the real heroes of the musical world

By John Terauds on January 30, 2014


For most concert presenters and record label managers, familiarity breeds content, meaning that it sells. But in the wider world, there are musicians as well as listeners who welcome a nice stretch of the imagination every now and again.

Enter pianist May Phang, one of the thousands of very accomplished musicians who graduate from excellent institutions of higher education, try their luck in the competition circuit, then settle into a teaching job while looking for opportunities to perform and record on the side.

They are not the A-list, but the broad, wide B-list that carries the top tier on its shoulders.

The A-listers blow in and out of town like Mary Poppins, dispensing charm and magic. The B-listers, the teachers and local collaborators, are our real heroes. They are the people who make up the strong backbone of professionalism that gets each subsequent generation to appreciate the joys of art music.

As yet another Olympic Games are about to start, we’ll once again go for the gold and unconsciously (or very consciously) dismiss the silver and bronze. But, in reality, how much technique and stamina and commitment separate the golden from the others? The margin is thinner than the proverbial razor blade.

May Phang now teaches at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. She has a Canadian connection through studies at McGill University and being a past winner of the Canadian Music Competition. She performs quite a bit as a solo and collaborative pianist.

And she has just produced her own album of solo piano pieces. Rather than give us more Chopin nocturnes or Beethoven sonatas or Rachmaninov preludes, Phang has woven together a programme of music we would otherwise not get to hear much, or at all.

As the 20th century floats away into the distance, we’re probably going to hear more of the late-19th century schmaltz that the moderns tried to purge from our aesthetic — and that Phang has assembled for us in her album, Travels Through Time.

mayphangThe A-list composer names on the album’s roster are: Richard Wagner, whose operas supply three of the 10 pieces; and Franz Liszt, for two of the transcriptions. The unifying theme is a voyage through realms of magic and myth.

Phang begins the album with the the Valhalla theme from Das Rheingold, as translated for 10 fingers by Franz Liszt. The Hungarian pianist-composer also supplies the best-known piece, the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The Magic Fire Scene from Die Walküre is by Louis Brassin (1840-84), whom Phang uses as an excuse to let the sunshine splash over a number of other 19th century obscurities and eccentrics.

The wildest backstory belongs to Rêve-charmant-Nocturne, a stereotypically mid-19th century Romantic dawdle through pretty melodies, composed by Thomas Wiggins. For some reason, I had never read or heard about this infamous 19th century American known as Blind Tom.

Wiggins was born into a Georgia slave family in 1848 — blind, autistic and endowed with an incredible ear and memory. For the next 60 years he and his peculiar talents were exploited mercilessly by anyone who could get their hands on him. (You can read Wiggins’ incredible life story here.)

Among the people who wrote about Wiggins was Mark Twain. Phang uses Twain as a means of linking together the Wagner operas (of which Twain was a huge fan) and the other pieces, which conclude with transcriptions of three very well-known songs by Stephen Foster.

The title of the album is inspired by Time Travel Phantasie, a piece Phang commissioned last year from Sy Brandon, who used Twain’s 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, for inspiration. Brandon’s piece is notably more spare than the rest of the music here, but is easy listening.

All of this would mean nothing without great interpretations, and Phang doesn’t disappoint. She clearly has technique to burn, and possesses a crystalline, light-fingered style that makes the music shimmer. She can also dig down into the keyboard when she needs to.

What seals the deal is her commitment. Whether playing Wagner or bonbons like The Enchanted Nymph by Mischa Levitszki (1898-1941), the prettiest, frilliest party dress in Phang’s musical walk-in closet, this artist is absolutely in charge of the narrative.

As I meantioned earlier, we’re going to hear more and more of this music as a young generation of musicians digs it up without being encumbered by the aesthetic baggage of the 20th century. Phang’s album is a brilliant introduction — and another reason to celebrate local musical heroes everywhere.

Phang is very poorly represented on the Internet. I couldn’t find a website, nor a single YouTube video of her in action. The record label mentioned on the album doesn’t appear to have a website, either. You’ll have to go to CD Baby here to find out more (including listening to audio samples).

 John Terauds

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