Community Concerts at Second presents potent recital by pianist Michael Sheppard

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Michael Sheppard knows how to build an unusual piano recital program. And play the heck out of it.

One way to tell a city's cultural strength is by the level of musicians who choose to live there. Pianist Michael Sheppard is among those boosting Baltimore's worth.

The Philadelphia native, who studied at Peabody Conservatory with two of the best, Leon Fleisher and Ann Schein, has been a familiar presence on the scene for several years now.

Sheppard is perhaps best known for his role in the Monument Piano Trio, a classy ensemble that has been in bit of flux since its violinist moved from the area. The pianist also teaches at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Oh yeah, and posts some mighty droll Tweets.

In a recital presented Sunday afternoon by Community Concerts at Second (the always free series at Second Presbyterian Church), Sheppard showed off his technical elan and interpretive breadth. The event was recorded for eventual release on Azica Records. An especially fine instrument, used on recordings by a who's-who of piano greats, was imported for the occasion.

The program held only one standard work, Schumann's Fantasie in C. Sheppard's performance was notable especially for the tension and heightened lyricism he achieved in the finale; his superb control of the crescendo passages had a lot to do with that expressive force.

There could have been more poetic phrasing of Schumann's eloquent quotation from a Beethoven song cycle at the end of the first movement, and more control at the surging close of the second. But this was nonetheless a potent, absorbing account of a venerable keyboard classic. 

As for less frequently programmed fare, the vivacious "Allegro de Conciertos" by Granados was delivered with a bright tone and terrific rhythmic spark.

Sheppard also offered prismatic, character-rich playing in Poulenc's "Les Soirées de Nazelles," a work that magically combines touches of cabaret and even the circus, brilliant melodic and harmonic twists, and episodes of bittersweet beauty. The pianist sculpted the most tender variations of the second movement and the enigmatic finale with particular sensitivity.

A prolific composer, Sheppard also added one of his own works to the mix, "Invitation to Travel" (not the most, um, inviting title, perhaps).

The piece is fueled by a malleable, four-note motive; lots of lush, movie score-like lyricism; some neat harmonic surprises; and a keen exploitation of the piano's coloristic possibilities. The performance was, of course, authoritative.

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