Per Tengstrand returns after last year

Anyone who went to the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center opening gala last year will probably remember the Swedish pianist that played with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Exactly one year from the date of the inaugural concert (to the minute even), Per Tengstrand returned to the concert hall stage to both entertain and educate the students, faculty, administration, and alumni who came for the evening.

Tengstrand has played with a number of orchestras, from the Royal Philharmonic in Stockholm and the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap to the Residentie Orkest in den Haag and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Not surprisingly, he has received numerous awards and honors throughout his years of playing piano.

I had the fortune of attending the EMPAC gala last year and jumped at the opportunity to see Tengstrand performing solo, even though I generally am not the biggest Beethoven fan. Upon entering the concert hall, the audience was greeted with two pianos on stage: one a large Steinway grand piano, and the other a replica of a late 1700s to early 1800s fortepiano. The fortepiano looked like a midget next to the grand piano, but it was intriguing to see such a refined and beautifully-crafted instrument on the stage, leaving me only to wonder what was to come.

Tengstrand began the program by speaking about the relationship between a composer and his instrument (which was the reasoning for bringing the fortepiano from Skidmore College for the evening). He described how differently the music would sound played on each of the instruments, playing the beginning of Beethoven’s first sonata on each. It was astounding how much more harsh and emotionally charged the fortepiano sounded in comparison to the smooth blending on the grand piano.

The first piece of the evening that Tengstrand played on the grand piano was Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 26,” composed in 1809. What I found striking about watching Tengstrand play was that his body became like an extension of the piano string vibrations. When the notes were dramatic, his whole upper body jumped with the music; when the tempo was more of a relaxing tempo, he moved smoothly from side-to-side. Even someone who couldn’t hear the music could almost tell what it sounded like from his expressions and movement.

Besides the dynamic playing, what had the audience mesmerized was his evident passion for the music. His fingers could saunter along the piano like none I’ve ever seen, gliding during the slower and more fluid tempos, yet moving so fast that one could barely see them during the staccato measures.

Following this first piece, Tengstrand spoke about the different aspects of Beethoven’s pieces and educated the audience on Beethoven’s compositions a little more. It was as mesmerizing to hear him speak as it was to hear him play, and even non-piano enthusiasts in the audience seemed entranced in listening to him.

Tengstrand next played a piece called “Funérailles,” which was composed by Franz Liszt in 1796. Having described the piece before starting to play, one could truly appreciate the piece for all its symbolism. I never would have picked out the harsh, low register to denote the ringing of the bells or the increasingly louder notes for the approaching horses of the soldiers.

After a brief intermission, Tengstrand played a small piece of the Beethoven sonata he had played earlier in the evening on the fortepiano. Although the piano didn’t fill up the concert hall with the same full sound, you could hear each individual note resonate across the room. Following the medley, Richard Hester, who was the builder of the smaller Beethoven piano, came onstage to talk about the instrument, which was incredibly interesting to listen to even for those not generally interested in such areas.

Finally, Tengstrand closed the night with Beethoven’s “Sonata Op. 2 No. 3,” composed in 1796, despite a slight disturbance from a member of the audience that Tengstrand handled with quite a sense of humor. After a standing ovation, he treated the audience to a random but amazing performance of “March of the Trolls” by Edvard Grieg.

Overall, the night was phenomenal, and this was one of my favorite performances that I have seen at EMPAC since its opening. I hope to see Tengstrand return again to the EMPAC stage for the opening’s second anniversary next year!