Oni Buchanan, pianist and poet, is an artist: that is certain. Beyond this, little is clear, given her varied background. Having begin college life in the sciences, she soon moved to the arts, shifting her studies to music — the piano she'd forsaken during high school — and English. Eventually garnering an impressive series of credentials, which include a Master's in piano and a Master's of Fine Arts in poetry, she developed a artistic sense which deftly compounds a trained literacy with a natural musicality. It is this combination of music and letters that is her calling card: she can turn a rather formal recital into an enjoyable lecture on musicology as related to literature without either destroying the atmosphere or abridging the discussion.
© 2005 Oni Buchanan
Her performance on February 18th, 2007, "Poetry in Piano", part of the "Music at the Morris" series (The Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA) was evidence of the deep connection between the literary and musical in her art. She designed the program particularly as a musical exposition of poetry, and succeeded in providing something between an advanced European Literature course, a coffee-house poetry discussion, and a classical piano recital — all three thoroughly enjoyable.
First were three Preludes from Book I, by Claude Debussy.
She introduces "Le vent dans la plaine" (No. III, "The wind over the plain"), almost unsure of herself — almost, mind you: not quite. It's as if her fingers are much more used to speaking than are her lips. Although, perhaps she fears for the ability of her audience to grasp the emotion and sensation which can only be conveyed in music — which she is just now trying to put to words. Bah! If they miss the message of the song, their blood be on their own hands.
No. IV, "Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir" ("Sounds and odours turn in the evening air") she tells us is an interpretation of "Harmonie du soir" ("Evening harmony"), from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). I've never read Baudelaire, but this inspires me.
Of course, from my initial cursory reading of the program, I've been awaiting No. XI, "La danse de Puck" ("Puck's Dance"). Need I say more? The Shakespearean imp (well, "little person", at the very most charitable) has inspired music, poem, and allusion — and interpretation of such works is generally horrid and un-Puckish. However, given Buchanan's evocative rendering of "Les sons et les parfums", I have high hopes. I'm not disappointed.
Watching her, I swear she is a very Puck sitting there on the bench, plucking out bewitching snatches and bewildering melodies from between the keys; and then, eyes glinting with mischief (I should've sat closer to centre), jumps away, leaving us to land heavily on the floor as our stool disappears from beneath us.
Brahms' Four Ballades, Op. 10, follows. The first of the four is a retelling of a Scottish murder-tale. Buchanan drops her stage persona, and settles comfortably into her new role as storyteller:
Why does your sword so drip wi' blood, Edward, Edward,
Why does your sword so drip wi' blood?
And why are ye so sad, O?
Of course, I'll not retell it here: you can find it in innumerable places, such as this article from American Music Teacher. Buchanan led us through both story and song, explaining how various aspects of the music expressed portions of the story and described its characters.
Then she played it.
While anyone else would have shattered the recital-hall atmosphere with this discussion seemingly better-suited to take place over a cup of coffee at a little cafe, it brought the story through her music in specifics, rather than generalities, and lost nothing to the literary hiatus in the performance.
The recital's apogee, though, was Buchanan's rendering of Villa-Lobos's "Rudepoêma": it garnered a standing ovation as the last chord (well, I use the term "chord" somewhat loosely — the piece ends with a fading series of despairing blows to the lower registers) disappeared.
The "Rudepoêma" is a devilish piece both to perform and to experience. Despite Buchanan's warnings, I was taken aback by its nearly animal intensity (the title translates literally as "Savage Poem"). It was an emotional journey probing all those depths of psyche that are so disparaged today: anger, hatred, sorrow, despair — the softened "modern American" is ill-equipped to use such feelings. Even Buchanan appeared exhausted when she finally finished. I know — if I can speak for my fellow audience-members — that we, at least, were.
"It really is kind of accosting," Buchanan said sweetly, immediately before sitting to begin. "I hope you like it."
"These last ones are pretty," she said, introducing us to the final four pieces, which provided a welcome relief from the mental and emotional avalanche immediately preceding. Two sets of Poèmes (Opi 32 and 44) by Scriabin finished the performance — light, elegant, and even, one might say, "perky". Calculated, shamelessly, but felicitously, to leave the audience in a better mood than Villa-Lobos would have permitted.
To find out more about Oni Buchanan, and to read some of her poetry, visit her site at onibuchanan.com. Her current tour, "Poetry in Piano", is in the States through the end of April, 2007.