Brubaker recital proves eclectic, hypnotic, and timeless

Bruce Brubaker blurred history and styles at Jordan Hall Thursday. Bruce Brubaker blurred history and styles at Jordan Hall Thursday. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / February 12, 2011

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Pianist Bruce Brubaker has mused that “all music is new music. It’s just that it ages and eventually becomes something we think we know.’’

The smartly eclectic program of his recital at Jordan Hall Thursday illustrated this notion. “Classical’’ works of the 19th century gently rubbed shoulders with “new’’ music of diverse vintage, casting a hypnotic spell of New Age serenity over the small but earnest audience.

Brubaker, chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory and a noted keyboard provocateur, set a mood of poetic reverie with John Cage’s “Dream.’’ Composed in 1948, it unfolds softly over about seven minutes in what sounds like scales, with few chords, moving slowly through patterns that recall the “Gymnopédies,’’ of Erik Satie.

To follow, Brubaker cleverly sandwiched two etudes by Philip Glass with two pieces by Robert Schumann. From the Glass Etude No. 5, he glided into the Schumann Fantasy Piece, Op. 111, No. 1, then slipped back into the Glass Etude No. 4 and finally sailed forward (or backward?) to the Schumann Op. 111, No. 2. History and styles blurred, merging into a kind of universal music beyond time.

The Boston premiere of “Drones and Piano,’’ by composer Nico Muhly, concluded the first half. Like Brubaker, Muhly is a crossover musician comfortable in diverse musical environments. The “Drones’’ arise from an iPod recording bearing various weird sounds (knocking, buzzing, rhythmic punctuations) and a viola intoning distorted open fifths. Meanwhile the pianist performs from a score but improvises the coordination between keyboard and iPod. The result is something like what Brubaker has called sonic “graffiti’’ splashed across a wall of music, although the effect would have been more dramatic had the piece been shorter.

In the second half, Brubaker returned to Glass, for “Wichita Vortex Sutra,’’ for piano and narrator. Mark Mobley (formerly of NPR’s “Performance Today’’) recited with robust enthusiasm the exclamatory text by Allen Ginsberg, about a revelatory road trip across Kansas during the Vietnam War. For a finale (or anti-finale) Brubaker tiptoed through Alvin Curran’s “Inner Cities II,’’ an introverted study in four-note phrases with minute variations. So little happens over its 25-minute span that the tiniest variation feels like an earthquake.

As an encore, Brubaker offered a sly slow-motion rendition of one of Schumann’s Op. 12 Fantasy Pieces. It seemed only fitting that he chose “Warum’’ — “Why?’’

Harlow Robinson can be reached at


At: Jordan Hall, Thursday night