Fascination should have turned to respect, or even affection, when Barry Douglas--the Irish musician who took a Gold Medal at the 1986 International Tchaikovsy Competition in Moscow--made his second local appearance, in Marsee Auditorium at the South Bay Center for the Arts, Wednesday night.
But it didn't. The 28-year-old pianist, offering a Romantically comprehensive recital program, after playing the First Tchaikovsky Concerto in Hollywood Bowl last summer, failed to seize this opportunity to solidify the genuine admiration one felt at that earlier appearance.
Still, fail is too strong a verb to describe this performance, which proceeded from Brahms' Opus 1 Sonata to the same composer's piano pieces of Opus 118, thence through Mendelssohn's beloved test-piece, the "Variations serieuses," before climaxing on Chopin's F-minor Ballade.
Douglas did not fail; merely, he did not triumph unequivocally. But there was disappointment in the air, as well as on the face of the would-be hero.
He does not need excuses. He earned his fee, and he played handsomely. In both Brahms works, Douglas produced intelligent and pointed accounts of the composer's representative early and late styles, if without often making either those styles or their expressions genuinely compelling.
He also proved technically adept while creating musical sense in the Variations. All they need is a wider purview, deeper resources of color and more abundant detailing--in short, greater finesse.
His Chopin performance, another job which seemed superficial and only half-baked--you don't suppose he was trying these works out on us, do you?--gave evidence of some, though not deep, thought, and a sense of identity with the composer. A substantial temperament may underlie the ostensibly undemonstrative quiet surface of Douglas' playing.
Exterior conditions did not favor the pianist. A boorish audience, one tending to cough often and applaud frequently while apparently not listening with full concentration, contributed to the pedestrian atmosphere. And a brand-new Steinway piano--to be officially dedicated at Minoru Nojima's recital next month--may or may not have stood in the way of the recitalist's full expressivity. When things don't work, one looks around for a reason.
Oddly enough, everything seemed to work in his encore, "June," from Tchaikovsky's "Seasons." Here, inner voices glowed with meaning, emotional subtexts made a first appearance in a long evening, and songfulness seemed to dominate.