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Music Review

Pianist Blair McMillen opens Walden School series

Pianist Blair McMillen performed on Sunday for the Walden School Concert Series in Dublin, N.H.Dave Sanders

DUBLIN, N.H. — Summer music camps, combining focused isolation and self-contained richness, channel something of Henry David Thoreau’s joy in realizing that his Walden retreat “was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers . . . a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.” The Walden School, founded in 1972, lets interlopers sample that spirit with an excellent — and free — concert series on its campus here. On Sunday, the day after some 50 students arrived for the school’s Young Musicians Program, New York-based pianist Blair McMillen welcomed them with a program that was mostly new and appropriately cosmic.

It was both showcase and homecoming for McMillen, a one-time member of the school’s resident ensemble. The repertoire played to his robust technique: coruscating, muscular, forging notes and flourishes on the keyboard’s anvil — qualities already on full display in the opener, a pair of preludes by Claude Debussy (“Le cathédrale engloutie” and “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest”), rendered with an impasto of accents and athleticism.


Three miniatures by David Rakowski (“Toyed Together” — a left hand-right-hand duet for piano and toy piano — “Extended Puppy” and “Absofunkinlutely”) exemplified that composer’s rampant imagination, ideas and riffs aggressively growing, mutating, overrunning a stretch of time like invasive species. “Medieval Induction” and “Defensive Chili,” a pair of etudes by Marc Mellits, were musically leaner, but of a similar cast, tag-teaming bright, driving, and boisterous versions of relentlessness. Nico Muhly’s “A Hudson Cycle” was, on the surface, an outlier, gently pealing fogged-glass harmonies, but there was a disquiet here, too, the loping 3-against-2 rhythms constantly jump-cutting out of regularity.

It was all extended prelude to the compendium/divination/be-in that is volume two of George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos.” The 12-piece suite, written in 1973 and unabashedly redolent of its era, encompasses just about everything one can do with or to a piano: faux-medieval austerity, fierce modernist firepower, the performer attacking the keys, vocalizing, stopping and strumming the strings. Titles refer to gods and gurus, destruction and transcendence.


In less committed hands, it might be a recipe for retro-preciousness. But McMillen’s playing vouchsafed the score’s quality and drama. His conviction gave the work’s far-out details urgent immediacy, while bringing out each movement’s rhythmic and structural spine, such that Crumb’s bag of extended-technique tricks felt like an orchestral resource.

“Makrokosmos” is a heavy statement, but the combination of performance and setting brought to mind nothing so much as the distant flute that, in one of Thoreau’s fables, calls a farmer to grander conceptions. “Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?” Thoreau writes. “Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.” The Walden School aims — and gazes — high.

Blair McMillen, piano

Presented by the Walden School

At: Louis Shonk Kelly Recital Hall, Dublin School, Dublin, N.H., Sunday

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at