REVIEW: Jessica Zhu – A Soiree of Preludes; Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert at The Denton, Worthing Pier, Thursday November 20. Chopin’s 24 Preludes Opus 28 and 10 of Debussy’s Preludes from Books 1 and 2.

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Music in the round came to top classical music concert-going in Worthing. And the spell of this unmatchable listening and watching experience may be cast. Jessica Zhu’s Interview Concert was presented with seats all around the piano and the oval included the interview settee where Tim Chick and she conversed after both sets of preludes.

This was the closest most of the audience had ever been to a piano while being played in performance by an international-class player. They will have felt the intimate contact with an artist at work as well as watching the spectacle of hugely-skilled arms and hands at the keyboard. The Debussy especially provided the excitement of seeing manual pyrotechnics on action. There was so much to sense and see.

But added to this is the audience’s intimacy with itself. Serried ranks of audiences all facing in the same direction fail to connect listeners spontaneously to anyone else in anything bar a flashing sideways glance to someone adjacent. But to see other audience members sitting opposite and reacting to what they are hearing creates the potential for contact and interaction, not only in observance but in verbal communication during an interval or at the end of the concert.

That can only lead to a regular audience getting to know each other.

This was the fifth Interview Concert featuring finalists from the Sussex International Piano Competition which takes place in Worthing Assembly Hall with conductor John Gibbons and the Worthing Symphony Orchestra. Jessica Zhu, the Chinese-American, won Third Prize and the Audience Prize, too, at the 2010 SIPC, and she had played three concertos with WSO before presenting to Worthing her Soiree of Preludes in a solo concert.

Her programme of music written for the French drawing room or Paris salon listeners made the setting not ideal but authentic. Her Chopin Opus 28 showed full range of Chopin’s imagination and then her Debussy brought an even stronger sense of controlled improvisation in sound, texture and evocation.

Zhu’s Chopin erupted into being in No 1 of the 24, then was immediately and strangely unsettling in No 2 before then bubbling forward in No 3. And after the tender, familiar mere 16 bars of elegant dance in the well-known No 7, her No 8 crashed in like a white water ride. No 14 was simply thunderous and No 15 plunged us into foreboding ― and rightly so because No 16 seemed virtually unhinged in its effect.

Some of the passion and almost near violence of some of these 24 prepared the ear, and Zhu, for two in particular of Debussy’s Book 1 ― The Wind in the Plain and What The West Wind Saw. This second was like a sweeping storm in winter, screaming onto the rocky coast of Brittany. Her Voiles were at the same time both sails on the water and veils in the air. And her Minstrels were caricatures of the sometimes gruffly humorous characters Debussy had in mind.

Zhu’s shock of thick, black, neck-length hair was tossed around during the many physical demands from both composers, though especially Debussy and I wondered if she plunged into the drama more fiercely than I saw French star Pascal Rogé so doing in a Connaught Theatre recital, probably some time back in the early 90s.

In terms of sound and tone, her Sunken Cathedral seemed to place us all in the clamour of the bell tower itself at the onset of high tide. Her eye for the vivid and her sensitivity to the poetry within these pieces seemed to be her primary driving forces.

She interrupted the sequence to stop and explain the Fairy Dancers, then to see if anyone recognised what she revealed was part of the French National Anthem in Fireworks. For an encore she added the General Levine Cakewalk from Book 2.

The habanera dance rhythm of The Wine Gate linked her with her story going forward which is that of an imminent project researching, performing and recording Spanish composer of preludes, Maurice Ohana, who died in 1992.

Audience participation with questions helped reveal , among many things: that Bach attracted her to studying music seriously, after she moved to the USA; it was his Preludes that drew her to Chopin; she teaches to support herself; she enjoys playing Ragtime (we know she plays them with stunning virtuosity); she would choose the ‘mysterious’ Schubert to be wrecked on a desert island with; and she especially recommends Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto.

And there was an audience prize for spotting a deliberate mistake on the programme.

The next Interview Concert will be with 2013 winner, Poom Prommachart, expected to be before the next SIPC. There will be 24 finalists in the April 2015 SIPC and juror Idil Biret, the prolific Naxos recording artist, will give an evening recital of Chopin, Schumann and Scriabin.

Richard Amey