I was one of the thirty or so fortunate people to be invited to this performance by Steinway Artist, Joja Wendt at the Steinway Gallery at Palais Renassance. He is my favourite German jazz pianist and I’ve attended three of his previous concerts in Singapore. His ‘mission’ tonight was to introduce to us the new SPIRIO model; but the bigger treat for the audience was his consummate playing!
Joja Wendt began with Rachmaninoff’s’ Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 3 No 2. It was several bars before I recognised it, for he had not played it as it was written. He had played it in his own style – with lots of jazzy elements and improvisations. He apparently loved playing the piano, but maybe because this was the opening piece and he did not know how receptive the audience would be, he could have been a bit jittery and missed a note or two but managed to camouflage it well. I might not have realised it and thought it was part or his improvisation had I not been sitting practically next to the piano and saw him grinning sheepishly.
It was only after the piece that he spoke to the audience. Naturally, he was pleased at the warm reception and found out that many of us have been to his concerts before. He then went on to relegate a childhood experience of how he was ‘tricked’ by his sister to play the piano at double the normal speed (“from 33rmp to 45rmp”); and that was how he ended up playing the way he does today. He then went on to illustrate what he meant by playing pieces he composed in various styles, incorporating elements of rock & roll and boogie-woogie. It was marvellous the way he could make the piano stool tilt to one side while playing like a maniac! This is the fourth time I’ve seen this ‘trick’, but because I was so near, I was very sure it was no trick. It was fascinating to watch him play with his right fingers’outside’ the keyboard and literally hit the keys with his nose! He could also play like he had four hands.
When he played his Rain Song, inspired by the perpetual rain in Hamburg, he became a conductor who instructed the audience what actions to do to create the various sounds made by the pitter-patter of the raindrops or a heavy downpour, all the while playing the piano without pause.
It was at this point that he decided it was time to carry out the obligation of promoting the Steinway SPIRIO piano. This he did by showing us a video of George Gershwin playing I Got Rhythm in a 1931 concert. He moved away from the piano and we saw for ourselves the keys playing simultaneously exactly what Gershwin was playing. So this is the wonderful thing about the SPIRIO: we can have any great pianists like Joja Wendt himself playing on our Steinway in our living room without inviting him to our house!
At this point, Joja Wendt said he would take requests. When someone said The Flight of the Bumble Bee, he replied: “Nah, that is very difficult to play.” He then went one to regale us with another childhood experience he had with haunted houses and how this inspired him to composed a piece called Haunted House, which he played.
Next, he talked about Art Tatum, whom he considered the greatest jazz pianist ever. He told a story of how, during Art Tatum’s era, pianists were paid by drinks and not money. And then went on to do exactly that. I have never witnessed any pianist who could continue to play the piano while sipping a drink from a wine glass.
His next piece sounded familiar in that it contained many scales, arpeggios and repeated patterns as in a study or technical exercise; it sounded Baroque at times, and jazzy at others. His enjoyment was apparent. Without much pause, he launched into Elephant Song. I’ve tried playing this piece a while ago, and I found it tricky; but the way Joja Wendt played it, it looked deceptively easy.
Though the audience did not request this next piece, inspired by the Wuacken Village, Joja Wendt said he must play it and let us know that he had a standing ovation after playing it in front of more that 80,000 European heavy metal fans. It is a piece in one of his CDs that I have, and I never knew that it is a piece meant for two pianos four hands. Watching him play it up close, I was in awe and amazement.
Eskimo is a piece requested by an European lady, and this he obliged (because it’s one of his compositions). It is a nice and soothing piece. The amazing thing is that he played it with clenched fists throughout (“imagine the Eskimo has forgotten to wear his mittens”). Only black keys were used throughout, and the last note was played by the tip of his nose.
Because it was going to be his final piece, Joja Wendt decided he would play a mesh-up of The Flight of the Bumble Bee with a new, cool New Orleans rhythm. Well, if Rimsky-Korsakov’s original was deemed “too difficult”, this special version is beyond difficult. When this ended, the audience roared with repeated calls for an encore.
The encore piece was also Joja Wendt’s own composition, inspired by the helix of DNA. This was a world premier. We were very honoured that Joja Wendt would choose to play this brilliantly composed, very complicated and very difficult piece for us.
The 75 minute performance was absolutely delightful, enjoyable, entertaining, engaging and engrossing.
What a wonderful way to spend an evening!