Electrifying Chills

By Charlie White

As a lover and performer of music, I’ve been to my share of concerts. I’ve been in a mosh pit thrashing about for my life during the Suicide Machines, closed my eyes and felt the gut-wrenching power of The Arcade Fire, and visited other dimensions with the surreal Devendra Banhart. However, with a few exceptions, classical music concerts tend to cause me to keep guiltily checking my watch and want to go home. South African pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar was an incredible exception. Pienaar, who performed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I on the piano in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center on Sunday, said nothing during his concert. He simply walked on to the stage, gave a modest bow, and sat down. He then paused for a few seconds, looking down at the keys as if he had forgotten why he was there and what exactly a piano was. But with a deep breath, he began his program. The music then proceeded to take over my mind and soul–it was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Pienaar’s interpretation of Bach’s work is unique and phenomenal. He sat on the bench playing piece after piece looking straight ahead, sometimes with his eyes closed, simply feeling the music with his fingers. He would look down only briefly during especially complex and breathtaking passages. The entire program, which lasted nearly two hours, was entirely in his head. As I watched him, I could envision the subtle trills and perfect clarity moving at light speed from his brain down to the tips of his fingers with absolute control.

Pienaar’s style of playing was incredibly varied throughout the different Preludes and Fugues. He proved himself capable of moving the audience with beautiful, gentle passages, and then moving naturally into another more fast and forceful part. In each piece he managed to let every note and melody be heard clearly, even though The Well-Tempered Clavier consists of pieces with both a complex left and right hand. From experience with Bach’s Inventions on the piano, I can tell you that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Yet he did it with no visible tension or stress, he appeared absolutely tranquil and confident through everything that Bach laid out for him.

Something else that struck me was the way he treated silences in between the different parts of his program. He would always let the last note of each part ring and slowly die away, allowing its beauty to sink slowly into each of the audience members. Then, for several seconds an enormous silence filled every corner of the room, sending incredible chills up and down my spine nearly every time in anticipation of what Pienaar was going to play next.

After the final piece from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, Pienaar got up, took a modest bow, and silently left the stage. However, the rest of the audience and I would have none of this–we wanted to remain submerged in Pienaar’s surreal aura forever. After a standing ovation and re-entering and exiting the stage four times, Pienaar finally sat down at the bench for one more piece and we fell silent once again.

After one more gorgeous rendition which wasn’t on the program and one more standing ovation, Pienaar bowed and left the stage for good, still not having said a word. But at this point, I understood that he didn’t have to. Everything he had to say to us was expressed with vibrant emotion through the piano. It would have ruined his mystery if he were to say anything; I was content simply being in awe of this strikingly handsome figure dressed all in black who could play Bach like nothing I had ever heard.

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