Audrey Vardanega of Oakland, the sensational 19-year-old concert pianist who has been captivating music critics, other musicians, and even grumpy old newspaper columnists ever since her smashing debut at the Midsummer Mozart Festival at age 14 – the youngest soloist, by far, in the festival's 41-year history – will return to the Bay Area from New York, where she is a sophomore at Columbia, for a concert at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on March 15.
She will play Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata, Liszt's "Valee O'Oberman," and Schumann's Symphonic Etudes.
"I guess for me, the most inspiring thing about the program is that all three composers were emotional wrecks," she says. "For example, the Beethoven piece is called 'The Tempest' because it's constantly changing. It starts with a storm, followed by a very sweet section. It's completely bipolar, just like Beethoven himself.
"Then we go on to the Liszt, which is about another emotional crisis. It's based on a German novel that was very popular in the 19th Century. The hero is stuck in a valley in the Swiss Alps, all by himself, and he doesn't know how to get out. He's having an existential crisis. As a Columbia student in my second year, still trying to decide what my major is, this is definitely a piece I can relate to!"
Finally, there's the Schuman etudes, a 30-minute-long set of variations on a theme.
"Schuman went crazy," she says. "It's very awkward to play, with chords spread out all over the place. You have to contort your hands to fit them. He doesn't make it easy.
"It's especially hard for me because I have small hands. My maximum reach is a ninth. He'll insert a fourth way below or add a third three octaves above."
But even more difficult is the basic paradox at the core of the piece.
"The bones are a simple pastoral melody, but it's very easy for a pianist to get caught up in all that jumping around and lose sight of that. It's hard to balance the physicality of it – a reflection of Schumann's own craziness and obsession with getting beyond the limits of what the hand can do – with the basic simplicity and lyricism of what he's trying to express.
"And that's the theme of the entire program: what I can physically do and what I'm trying to express."
But if all this makes it sound like Audrey's life is filled with sturm und drang, it's anything but.
To the contrary, she's having the time of her life soaking up knowledge and new experiences like a sponge, from reading Hegel, Hume and St. Augustine in her political science courses to hanging out in jazz clubs with her friends, many of whom are jazz musicians.
"I'm learning to embrace change and see it as growth," she says. "Look at my teacher, Seymour Lipkin. He's 80 years old, and he's still reinventing himself! I want to be like that. I'm embracing the fact that I'll probably look back in two years and say, 'Was I a horrible pianist!'"The concert starts at 7 p.m. The Hillside Club is at 2286 Cedar Street in north Berkeley. Tickets are available at the door, and I'd get there a half-hour early to get a good parking space on the street.