Pianist Karine Poghosyan had a banner year of concerts lined up for 2020. She was riding a wave of critical adulation for her most recent album of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works, and then a particularly spellbinding Carnegie Hall concert. A week before the lockdown, she played a symphony orchestra gig. All of a sudden, a career that seemed to be on a meteoric rise hit a brick wall.
In the meantime, like so many other artists, Poghosyan has gone to plan B and found a temporary home on the web. But she’s taken her webcasting to the next level. Every week since the beginning of the lockdown, she’s memorized a different program, which she plays on Friday nights for her Facebook followers (for the general public, many of these are archived on her youtube channel). And at the end of every month, she treats her Patreon supporters to a longer, more intimate and interactive performance. Last month’s was an all-Chopin program with an intensity which was visceral beyond the sonic and atmospheric limitations of a small screen.
Seated at her vintage 1925 Boston Chickering baby grand in a classically small Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, she fretted about her hair. Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 is “not very kind to hair,” Poghosyan explained to her followers. That might seem trivial, except that for Poghosyan, hair is part of the performance. Playing is a full-body experience in her world. Swaying, throwing back her black mane to the wind, then reaching forward as if to magnetize some unseen Rosetta Stone from under the piano lid, she seemed to be channeling this music more than performing it. Paradoxically, even many times removed from the actual venue, that physicality has an exponential effect on her performance.
In her hands this time, the Ballade turned out to be a song without words until it exploded in a hailstorm. How many other pianists have the nerve to take the first crescendo to such a wild peak? Afterward that, her steady arc back upward gave the audience pause to consider what had just happened.
She takes a painstaking approach to her programming. “I think of these piece as a mini-group,” she explained, introducing the Nocturne in B-flat Minor, Op. 9, no.2. Poghosyan’s dad is renowned painter Razmik Pogosyan, who, as it turns out, is a devotee of Italian opera. As a rising star of the teenage piano world in Yerevan, Armenia, she heard a lot of her father’s opera records and remains a fan. She mentioned a very cantabile quality to this piece and stuck to that through an understatedly waltzing approach with a little judicious rubato, up to a regal, stately segue into the centerpiece of the evening, the famous Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66.
It took an awful lot of nerve, but an equal amount of skill to play it at Art Tatum speed like she did. As breathtaking as that was to hear, she somehow found a solid elasticity to connect these volleys of notes, rather than taking a simple, rapidfire icepick approach to the big peaks. And when she backed off, the suspense was something to savor. She’s been playing it since high school, but she never gets sick of it, always finding “new characters” to evince from the notes, as she put it.
The end of the program was fascinating, She found torrential proto-Debussy in Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, no. 15 and closed with a towering, turbulent, exhilaratingly triumphant take of his Polonaise-Heroique, Op. 53. This was a battle, not a parade, a charismatic gunslinger who’d come to save us all from the needle of death. The force she used attacking the initial sequence of chords left no doubt that she’d come to slay. This wasn’t the troops strutting for the cameras, or Ray Manzarek slyly quoting from his fellow Pole in that classic Doors song. This was victory come hell or high water. Again, Poghosyan’s quicksilver articulacy and intuitive sense of dynamics kept this piece’s angst and aching hope from regressing into classical heavy metal.
Poghosyan’s next webcast for her Patreon people is March 28 at 4 PM with works by Gershwin, Amy Beach and Samuel Barber. You need a Zoom connection: monthly contributions can be as low as $25. That might keep her piano in tune until the next webcast.