Surrounded by filled seats on the stage of Galesburg’s 96-year-old Orpheum Theatre, Professor of Music Bruce Polay put on solo piano performances of a wide range of difficult works from Handel to Brubeck, and even Polay himself, for his sixth annual “Bruce and Old Friends” performance.
Polay noted the difficulty of the night’s program.
“Smart pianists would never put this much technical diversity on a recital; it’s too dangerous,” he said.
The night’s selections consisted of a series of difficult pieces by Frederic Chopin and Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, but also demanded a delicacy and subtlety from the performer for pieces by Claude Debussy and Dave Brubeck.
The first piece, a gigue from a suite by Handel, was an upbeat allegro number that Polay handled effortlessly, and was followed by a Haydn sonata in F major that integrated elegant, expressive and powerful styles.
Polay’s next set of pieces, however, were the crowd favorites, exhibiting Polay’s dexterity and technical abilities. One was Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Rondo in G major,” and featured difficult contrapuntal chromatic lines, tempo changes and harmonic digressions.
The other, “Malaguena” by Lecuona, was a virtuostic piece. Although the harmony was relatively simple, the velocity and sweep required of the player is no small feat. The return of the main theme at the end at forte sent the crowd into uproarious cheer.
The piece was a favorite of Frank Gustine ’60, who said that it “lifts you off your seat and shakes you.”
Polay started the second half of his concert with an upbeat piece by Brubeck written in 9/8 time, followed by an original Polay ragtime work with a modern harmonic twist called the “Siwash Rag.” The piece was an innovative extension of the genre, but perhaps a bit oddly placed within the overall program.
The night took a dramatic turn next with Debussy’s “Estampes,” or “Postcards.” Demanding a delicacy not contained in the other piece, Polay played over the keys rather than into them. Moving in agile arpeggiations and whole tones, he demonstrated a subtle expressiveness that beautifully contrasted the virtuosity of the earlier pieces in the program.
The finale of the night, and in stark contrast with the Debussy piece, was Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise,” which, according to Polay, was the most “technically demanding” piece of the program. Although there were a couple of noticeable slip-ups occurring in the latter half of the work, Polay balanced Chopin’s exquisite melodies with the forceful, “heroic” gallops in the bass in elegant and dynamic fashion.
Audience response to the concert was mostly positive. Sophomore Lily Gaetgaeow, a current student of Polay’s, praised the program selection.
“The pieces he’s chosen are a good balance of delicacy and excitement,” she said.
Senior Megan Beney saw the value of the concert beyond the music itself.
“’Bruce and Old Friends’ is a good name for the concert; it’s like a family gathering,” she said. “It’s like he’s bringing back chamber music.”
Gustine, who has known Polay since he came to Galesburg, thought the concert had a “fantastic selection,” and sees performances like these as “a tremendous asset” to the community.
Polay’s hope is that whatever the audience interprets, he is still able to bring them a true representation of each composer’s vision.
“I don’t want to superimpose a specific idea on anybody,” he said. “I’m hoping that people walk away with not only a wider spectrum of interesting piano music … but that they walk away with the genius that the composer placed into the music.”