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Café Concert: Jenny Lin

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An upright piano may not seem like the desired tool of a keyboard purist but Jenny Lin needed little rationalization for playing Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite on the upright in the WQXR Café.

Stravinsky himself was said to compose not at a concert grand, but "at a tacky-sounding and usually out-of-tune upright piano that has been muted and dampened with felt,” according to a onetime description by his wife, Vera Stravinsky. What’s more, Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, advocated using uprights in orchestra works, arguing for their tinny, delicate sounds over thick, chordal opulence. The instrument may have also underscored the Russian folk sounds that characterize many of Stravinsky's early works.

The Taiwan-born, New York-based Lin also plays Stravinsky on the big grands, something she has been doing a lot lately. Her newest album is a collection of a dozen of the composer's solo piano works, and while many of them aren’t so well known – perhaps lacking the surging passions or flamboyant calisthenics employed by other Russian composers – she believes they have much to admire and enjoy.

"We really should know more about Stravinsky as a piano music composer because he composed a lot of the orchestra music on piano, and he was a very good pianist himself,” said Lin. Along with original solo piano pieces like the Sonata and the Serenade, there are some finger-twisting arrangements, notably Guido Agosti’s transcription of the Firebird Suite. Here Lin plays work’s the Danse infernale:

Lin discovered Agosti’s Firebird transcription while studying in Italy as a teenager and that got her hooked on Stravinsky's work. “He's clever as a composer,” she noted. “He knows what gets an audience and can trigger the adrenaline.”

While Lin’s concert repertoire includes the hefty concertos of Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, her discography tells of a more eclectic sensibility, spanning "InsomniMania," a collection of pieces inspired by nighttime dreams and anxieties, and "The Eleventh Finger,” devoted to complex modernists like Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliott Sharp and others. In the WQXR Café she also performed a selection from "Get Happy: Virtuoso Show Tunes for Piano.” The 2012 album featured arrangements of Broadway songs by such noted pianist-composers as André Previn, Stephen Hough, Marc-André Hamelin and Alexis Weissenberg.

“One should not take these pieces very lightly,” said Lin. “I have to say, I thought that doing the Broadway arrangement project would easy because of the tunes but it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do, because every pianist just took the tune and went off with it.”

Below is Lin’s performance of Gershwin’s Embraceable You, in an arrangement by the late Earl Wild:

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon