A Tale of Two Composers

Photo courtesy of classicalsmackdown.com.

Sergei Prokofiev and Claude DeBussy. Two composers who crafted elegant and beautiful music in their time but now brought together for… a fight? That’s the idea behind Frederic Chiu’s “Classical Smackdown.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 3, SUNY New Paltz’ McKenna Theater was host to a “Classical Smackdown.” World renowned pianist Frederic Chiu played famous works from both Prokofiev and DeBussy. Chiu, as written in the program for the “Smackdown,” is devoted to enhancing the live concert experience for diverse audiences. Also according to the program, Chiu has played with such musicians as Joshua Bell, Pierre Amoyal and Gary Hoffman as well as with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Jazz Pianist Bob James.

The results of the “Classical Smackdown” were determined after Chiu completed each “round” of pieces. The audience was asked to vote on which set of pieces they liked more and thus which composer they liked more. Audience members voted three times during the show and a final time at the end for an overall winner of the “Classical Smackdown.”

After audience members had taken their seats inside McKenna Theater, Dr. Alex Peh, piano professor at SUNY New Paltz, took the stage to speak to the audience briefly about Chiu and his work. Before playing the “Smackdown” that night, Chiu had taught a piano master class to students earlier in the day.

Once the brief introduction was finished, Chiu took the stage and had some words for the audience.  He spoke about how excited he was to be at New Paltz and share his “Classical Smackdown” creation with everyone there. He said the idea came from him imagining what a show like “American Idol,” “The Voice” or any of the famous music reality shows would have looked like over 100 years ago.

The first round of pieces was extremely enjoyable and Chiu included very notable works of each composer. He began by playing Suite Bergamasque (1890-1905) by Claude DeBussy. Included in the suite are the movements Prelude, Menuet, (the most famous section) Clair de Lune and Passepied. After the conclusion of DeBussy’s suite, Chiu played his first Prokofiev selections of the night, Romance, Kije’s Wedding and Troika which were three pieces from the famous Lieutenant Kije Suite (1933).

Once the audience had selected the winner of round one on their ballots, Chiu moved one to the second and, as he put it, “nitty, gritty round,” featuring lesser known but equally as powerful compositions by Prokofiev and Debussy. The second round began with two of Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives (1915-17) along with further works of his including Sarcasme (1912) and Diabolic Suggestions (1908). Diabolic Suggestions was easily one of my favorite piece of the night. After Prokofiev was done throwing punches in round two, it was DeBussy who went on the attack. Chiu played two DeBussy selections in the second round which included Cloches à travers les fueilles from Images (1907) and Jardins sous le pluie from Estampes (1903).

As the “Smackdown” was heating up and heading into round three, both composers had gotten their hits in. DeBussy was first to try to land the fatal blow in round three when Chiu played Rêverie (1890). DeBussy had put up a good fight but it was now Prokofiev’s turn to hit the knockout. Chiu played Prokofiev’s Toccata (1912) to end the performance. Both composers had put up a hell of a fight.

So who won the “Classical Smackdown?” Sergei Prokofiev. On ClassicalSmackdown.com, all the results are listed after the shows’ conclusion and the audience members at SUNY New Paltz heavily voted in Prokofiev’s favor with him getting a whopping  59 percent of the vote overall. DeBussy earned 39 percent of the vote with two percent being undecided and tying the two composers at the end. The age demographic of the voting was interesting as well. Prokofiev won almost every age groups votes except for audience members 61 years and older. 65 percent of them preferred DeBussy.

Following the event, Chiu posted on the “Classical Smackdown” website that his first performance at SUNY New Paltz was a success.

“Despite over 20 years visiting New Paltz, I had never visited the SUNY campus. The turnout was great, and the response was enthusiastic,” Chiu said.