Monday night at the National Opera Center, pianist Max Lifchitz admitted that he was “a little scared” by the prospect of plunging back into live performance after being sidelined by plandemic restrictions for the past two years. It was a triumphant return to his niche, the terrain where the Second Viennese School meets south-of-the-border sounds. Until the 2020 lockdown, Lifchitz and his various North/South orchestral configurations had been a familiar presence in concert spaces around New York and beyond.
Picking up where he’d been rudely interrupted, he opened with Robert Fleisher’s 6 Little Piano Pieces, a brief Schoenberg-inspired partita: jazz-inflected modalities within a minimalist stroll with little flourishes that leapt to the surface. Robert Martin’s 2 Ancient Pieces, emphatic student works from a half-century ago, were as effective a segue as a reflection of that era’s 12-tone obsessions (with a few winks to sweeten them).
Lifchtitz romped through Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 2 Piano Pieces in Mixed Accents, a final pair of miniatures built around minimalist, cascading eighth-note phrases. With as much power on her low end as the curlicues at the top, soprano Maria Brea took centerstage for an expresssive interpretation of Osvaldo Golijov‘s Lua Descolorida (“Colorless Moon”), a steady, almost marching nocturne with more than a a hint of a ranchera ballad.
Next, mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti took over for Jimmy Kachulis’ Healing Waters of the Amazon. From the opening mantra, “Come on and heal me,” over Lifchitz’s brightly methodical, increasingly bracing chromatic drive, she made it an aptly bittersweet invocation against what the world has had to battle since March of 2020.
Brea returned to sing Odaline de la Martinez’s 4 Afro-Cuban Poems, including a bouncy one about a Cuban guy in love with an American woman whose language he can’t speak, and a shout-out to a girl who does all the hard work around the house. Lifchitz’s own Me Acero y Me Retiro (“I Approach and I Withdraw”) featured both singers in an expansive, dynamically shifting, distantly imploring dialogue and then a harmonically bristling duet after a spaciously climbing, enigmatic piano intro. Lifchitz mirrored that with an arresting, syncopated solo fugue for a coda. It was the highlight of the night.
He closed the program with a trio of brief piano pieces. Venezuelan composer Francisco Zapata-Bello‘s leaping Scherzo Latino perfectly capsulized Lifchitz’s primary focus over the years. William Ortiz‘s Max en Soho Jamming con the Orishas was another of the concert’s high points, a mashup of ragtime and chromatic Scarlatti with a danse macabre at the center. Lifchitz went back to energetic twelve-tone territory for the final piece on the bill, Aurelio de la Vega’s Hamenagem.