Margaret Mills exuded calm and strength as she stood by the piano in Karl Geiringer Hall on Saturday night. She bowed to acknowledge the audience’s welcoming applause, then immediately turned her immense concentration to three short works by Schumann: the Romances in B-flat Minor and F-sharp Minor (Opus 28), and Aufschwung (Opus 12). In an evening full of unexpected pleasures, her performance reached its height with Joel Feigin’s Four Meditations from Dogen, an extraordinary work of clear thought and deep passion.
Mills also played John Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato, an interesting set of variations on a simple theme from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. The work explores the full range of this theme’s possibilities, from a minimalist rendering of its rhythm on one key, to wild fantasies that made it almost unrecognizable. It also served as an apt introduction to Feigin’s Four Meditations that followed. Feigin’s work, a concert version of something composed for a video project, also had moments of minimalism, but these were more explicitly in the service of Zen philosophy: the contemplation of simple material reality to find peace. The opening movement, a poco andante, put us in a thoughtful, but energetic mood; the allegro brillante that followed was lively, but had an inner calm. The adagio, based on the Zen aphorism, “Water is nothing but the real form of water just as it is,” contained the essence of the work and brought us the simple joy of hearing water in a single piano note, reveling in pure sensation.
After the intermission, Mills gave us an interesting variation on the same theme with short pieces by Debussy and Ravel. Debussy’s Pour le piano was even more fun than it usually is, because our awareness of the subtleties of texture and harmony had already been sharpened. Likewise, Ravel’s Une Barque sur l’Ocean painted a clear, vivid picture in sound. Mills finished the concert by returning to Debussy with three well-known Preludes from Books 1 and 2, balancing humor and grace well. Her encore, a movement from Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, summed up the evening, weaving the deep thoughtfulness of transcendentalism with the simple enjoyment of a well-sung hymn. Her performance of it reflected the Zen of balancing the mind and the senses.