A student recitalist on his way

Posted: May 15, 2010

On paper it was yet another student recital at the Curtis Institute of Music, the 99th of the season. But this program of Schubert and Schumann played by Kuok-Wai Lio doubled as something rarer - the quiet launching pad for a career.

In Thursday night's audience at Curtis' Field Concert Hall were not only Gary Graffman, with whom the Macau-born pianist has studied for four years, but also Earl Blackburn, the savvy artists' agent who has handled Lang Lang and Yuja Wang (also Graffman students), and who recently took Lio onto his artist roster.

Wise teachers - not to mention agents - cultivate individuality, not orthodox philosophies, so no one should be surprised to learn, as Lio's career builds, that there isn't an excess of flamboyant puppy-dog energy in his playing. At 21, Lio in fact emerged at his graduation recital as the antidote to Lang Lang.

With his just slightly expressive face and restrained physicality at the keyboard, he aims to elicit the core meaning of the piece, with only the most carefully considered contributions from his own ego.

It's tricky in emergent talent to sort out whether interpretive ideas are their own or acts of deference to a pedagogical authority. But something in Lio's absolute firmness convinces me of sole ownership. If some pianists see Schubert as license for exaggerated drama, the composer was for Lio an act of forbearance - with judicious bursts of expressiveness. The first movement of the Sonata in G major (D. 894) was a compelling essay on control versus freedom.

The technique is all there, but it always yields to a larger purpose: In Schubert's Impromptu in F minor (D. 935, No. 1), which shares a bold thematic shred with the Wanderer Fantasy, he seemed the purposeful anti-virtuoso. A more connected legato at a faster tempo would have shown off his chops, but Lio preferred a deliberate pace, exposing harmonic twists and turns in exquisite detail.

Through sophisticated rhythmic manipulation, Lio did the near-impossible by imposing order on Schumann's rangy Davidsb¬Ěndlert¬Ěnze (Op. 6) - 18 sketches of conversation between the composer's recurring characters Florestan and Eusebius. Just as impressive were the finely calibrated personality traits with which Lio animated Schumann's dialogues - the manic power-mongering, jubilation, and yes, flamboyance.

The encore, from Bach's Goldberg Variations, brought calm after the wild thickets of Schumann. Lio played only the opening, which had the effect of seeming incomplete. Then again, when you're young and talented and mastering repertoire at this pace, it's smart to save a little something for 22.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.

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