Renowned Pianist Ernst Honors and Inspires at Gasson Hall

The Boston College music department kicked off a series of three concert-lectures in Gasson 100 last Monday featuring Moritz Ernst, one of the leading pianists of his generation, in his first United States appearance. The series, entitled “Keyboard Landscapes: Visions of Modernity,” explores the innovative works and profiles of 20th and 21st century composers and the historical climate that influenced them.

The series began with “Voices of the Avant-Garde: The Composer as Revolutionary,” which consisted of works by Boulez, Schoenberg, Debussy, Bartok, and Stockhausen. These modernist pieces reflect the period of change and development in different artistic spheres that occurred around the turn of the 20th century. The status quo was being rejected in favor of new and unique elements that pushed the boundaries of art and thought.

Before the concert began, Daniel Callahan, an assistant professor in the music department, hosted a presentation that explored this contextual perspective. To draw parallels between music and literature, Callahan read a passage from modernist archetype Ulysses by James Joyce—facing a wall of Jesuits, as he remarked. He told the audience afterward: “If you understood that passage, you’re probably lying.”

Callahan expressed how these modernist works of music and literature can sometimes feel confrontational, but that it’s important to focus not necessarily on what the works are saying, but on how they’re saying it. And what better representative of these composers to present that how than Moritz Ernst? He has been renowned globally for his recording and performance of different music from seminal composers. Composer Ralf Gawlick, an associate professor in the music department who invited Ernst for the series, describes him as “an illustrious performer” noted for “his advocacy and championing of works from the 20th and 21st centuries.”

His illustriousness was on full display Monday night. The pieces Ernst performed were of no simplicity. The avant-garde techniques used in the pieces required Ernst to pull off rapid flourishes that were not only a spectacle to hear, but to watch. The solo pianist’s hands moved so quickly at times they seemed to blur completely together. He moved up the piano from the lowest to the highest octave in a matter of seconds, alternating between keys with the speed of a snare percussionist.

The “revolutionary” quality of the pieces were more present at the beginning and end of the concert, with more familiar—and less confrontational—pieces in the middle with Debussy and Bartok. Whereas most of the pieces were largely atonal, without any grounding in a major or minor mode, the Debussy pieces had some semblance of melody. La Cathédrale engloutie, the penultimate piece performed by Ernst, had just the right effect to put you in a state of relaxation before the program’s finale, Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X, completely shattered it.

The Stockhausen was undoubtedly the most enthralling piece of the performance. Ernst left the room prior to beginning the piece, returning with a “Michael Jackson-esque” frilly shirt on and white silk gloves with the tips cut off. The shirt may have been for purely style, but the gloves allowed Ernst to perform long, rapid slides up and down the keys. Stockhausen is known for his unpredictable and irregular rhythms that resemble movements and patterns found in nature, and Ernst exhibited plenty of this unpredictability and irregularity. At times, he would even lay both his forearms on the piano and strike large clusters of keys. Some of it was even a bit uncomfortable to hear with all of its volume and energy. But it’s not every day you get to witness someone so accomplished in what they do shed light on others so accomplished in what they did.

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor