Santa comes to Arran

A review of the recent Music Arran concert, with pianist Santa Ignace. By Alice Maxwell.

The Latvian pianist Santa Ignace presented a Music Arran audience with an extraordinary early Christmas present this month. Her virtuosic playing pinned us to our seats, leaving us speechless and lost in wonder.

Santa is named after the Italian Saint, Ignacio, for no particular reason, other than their family name is Ignace. Her father is an accomplished jazz pianist and was her first teacher. She later studied at the Latvian Conservatory under Latvian teachers who had studied in Russia under the highly demanding regime which still exists today. Lessons were strict and nothing but the highest of standards were acceptable. Santa flourished in this setting, and gave her first public performance when she was 16. Her final teacher (5 years ago, in Amsterdam) abandoned their lessons, saying there was nothing left to teach her.

In 2007 she followed her father to southern Ireland where she lives modestly in Cork. She does not even possess a piano, but fortunately has unlimited access to the sixty Steinways at the Cork School of Music where she lectures and teaches. On top of a demanding timetable at the Music School, Santa is also studying film direction with a view to directing films with a musical content in the future. Her imagination, and dynamic enthusiasm for almost everything, bode well for excellent projects ahead.

Santa is not especially interested in playing Bach, Mozart or Haydn because it is not technically demanding enough for her. She loves extreme challenges and last night’s repertoire certainly reflected this.

The programme began with a Passacaglia by the Polish composer Godowsky (1870-1938). Godowsky was entirely self- taught, and thrived in composing what is generally accepted to be some of the most difficult piano music ever written. Not content with the challenges of Chopin’s Etudes, he transcribed them in order to add difficulty. One of these transcriptions has two Chopin Etudes played by the right, and left hands simultaneously. Godowsky was fond of Schubert, and this Passacaglia has 44 variations on a Schubert theme from his Unfinished Symphony.

After some wonderful Chopin, we heard Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The name “Moonlight” was actually given to the work by the poet Ludwig Rellstab and has little to do with the music, which was inspired by Beethoven’s experience of sitting at the death bed of a friend.

Lizst’s Campanella followed, based on a theme from Paganni’s Caprice for violin. Together, Lizst and Paganini brought a new role to that of the performance artist – that of the superstar. Audiences flocked to marvel at their technical brilliance, and ladies swooned and threw them their gloves. We were so fortunate to hear Santa continuing this tradition of staggering virtuosity.

The concert ended with the 2nd Piano Sonata by Rachmaninov. Quite different in style from the well-known romanticism of the 2nd Piano Concerto, this sonata leaves romantisicm behind, plunging into the stormy waters of modernism, juxtaposed with some unexpected jazz syncopation.

How lucky we were to be treated to this monumental programme. I overheard a member of the audience ask Santa at the end if she could come back…. Next week! I am sure this sentiment was shared with all of us, and we look forward to her swift return.

Santa sets off for the ferry in an old ambulance