Drury, despite small turnout, delivers a top-notch performance

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2011

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Slim audiences are a fact of concertgoing life. At any number of worthy events, one can cast one’s eyes around a hall and lament the number of unoccupied seats — a phenomenon that a limping economy has doubtless exacerbated in recent years.

But at some concerts the disconnect between attendance and artistic excellence is so great as to seem simply unjust. By my estimation, no more than 60 people heard Tuesday’s superb recital by pianist Stephen Drury. It’s anyone’s guess what kept people away, though lousy weather almost certainly played a part. But I’d wager that no one in Jordan Hall came away anything but thrilled by the musicianship on display.

Contemporary music has always been Drury’s stock in trade, so one of the pleasures of his recitals is hearing his approach to established repertoire. On Tuesday he led off with Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze.’’ Many performances of these 18 character pieces highlight the music’s lyrical charm, but Drury played with a clipped, unsentimental drive. He seemed most attuned to its moments of harmonic uncertainty, of which there are more than initially meet the ear. Not all of it worked, and sometimes the music was too loud and brusque for its own good. But it was an interesting rethink of a familiar staple.

He paused only a moment after the end of the Schumann before launching into “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida,’’ Christian Wolff’s fantasy on Holly Near’s song mourning the women who disappeared during the Chilean junta in the 1970s. The music converts the song’s grief into music of jarringly fast changes — now a series of disjointed trills, now a quiet unison melody, now an obsessive repetition of two notes. Just as it expands in density and dissonance, the music breaks off icily in mid-phrase, as though the women’s fate were no longer our concern.

After intermission came Ives’s “Concord’’ Sonata. Ives is a longtime specialty of Drury’s, and it is difficult to imagine a performance of greater command or authority than this one. Mahler famously said that the symphony needed to encompass the whole world; the sonata accomplishes that feat, with tone clusters, church hymns, and parlor ballads comingling in a happy chaos.

Lest anyone think that this music now sounds familiar, Drury reminded listeners how thrillingly untamed it really is. The “Hawthorne’’ movement in particular reached moments of riotous intensity. But perhaps the pianist’s greatest achievement was in the quiet “Thoreau’’ movement, which spun out like some kind of mysterious rite, ancient in nature. Fenwick Smith, Drury’s colleague at New England Conservatory, played the optional flute part from backstage.

A small audience it may have been who heard this remarkable performance, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in attentiveness. Most joined in a well-earned ovation at the end.

David Weininger can be reached at


At: Jordan Hall, Tuesday