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Welsh pianist Llyr Williams earns standing ovation from Gilmore crowd in Kalamazoo (review)

04.29.14
Llyr Williams
Kalamazoo Gazette

By Yvonne Zipp 

KALAMAZOO, MI -- Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata is one of the most famous in classical music -- one of those works, like "Appalachian Spring" or "Flight of the Valkyries," that even people who aren't classical music fans know. (If you've ever heard "Somewhere Out There" from "An American Tail," you've heard a stylized version of the melody in its second movement.)

Bringing a fresh interpretation to something so well-known, without alienating people who love it, is a real challenge. Welsh pianist Llyr Williams managed both, banishing all memory of singing mice and bringing the audience of 117 to its feet by the end of his concert Tuesday, as part of The Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo.

Williams, who is often compared in reviews to the late Glenn Gould, clearly has a special affinity with the work of Beethoven. He performed a Beethoven sonata cycle around Great Britain, including two weeks during August 2011 at the Greyfriars Kirk Festival in Edinburgh, when he played all 32 sonatas in a series of concerts. He received a prestigious South Bank Show award for that achievement.

With sunlight streaming in the Palladian windows of Stetson Chapel and Kalamazoo College students walking to class outside, it would have been easy to daydream. Williams didn't let the audience drift off on clouds of music, holding their attention with showmanship, humor (exaggeratedly wiping his brow during the Pathetique), unexpected pauses, terrific runs of speed, and even, very occasionally, pounding the keys.

After lulling his listeners with the Andante during the Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14, No. 2, for example, he ended with an emphatic bang, before launching into the playful final Scherzo.

Tuesday's final selection was the most complex: No. 20 in E Major, Op. 109 – one of the five sonatas Beethoven wrote after he had suffered such a profound hearing loss he could no longer continue his career as a pianist. Williams let the final measure linger, before receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

Tuesday was the first of three concerts of Beethoven Sonatas Williams is performing as part of The Gilmore Festival. The second will be Saturday, May 3, at 2 p.m. and the third next Tuesday at 2 p.m., both also at Stetson Chapel. Tickets for all three are $20, but the final Tuesday concert is free to anyone with a Kalamazoo College I.D. and one guest, so ticketholders should plan to get there earlier.