Music Review : Pianist Sullivan Skips Beats and Is Unable to Beat Heat


Closing the 20th season of the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival, Mark Hallum Sullivan struggled through much of his difficult recital Thursday, though technical demands of the music were clearly not his obstacle. Instead, sweltering heat in the McGaugh Elementary School Auditorium seemed to turn both playing and concentration into slippery affairs.

Attired in full tuxedo (in contrast to many of the regulars in this audience, who dressed casually and knew to arm themselves with hand-held fans), Sullivan mustered the opening piece--Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511--with only minimal slips.

Using pedal judiciously for quiet clarity, he minimized the dramatic aspects of the composition in favor of elegance and intimate communication. The $100,000 Fazioli grand piano on loan for the evening responded with remarkable evenness of tone, if not the timbral lushness of some of its German and Austrian competitors.

Then the real trouble started. Beethoven’s late Sonata in A, Opus 101, requires maturity of both technique and insight. Sullivan, a USC doctoral candidate and part-time faculty member, completely broke down twice, yet some of the most challenging sections, including the thorny conclusion of the final movement, emerged neatly paced and intelligently woven.



The stops appeared to be almost random, as if a sudden hitch in the mental process had caused the pianist to halt, hand in midair, once after perhaps the first 10 seconds of the work--which he then began anew--and again in the early part of the fugue. If he had not been in a sweat before, he certainly must have been now.

During intermission, some pitying soul finally placed a fan near the piano. Sullivan returned, without a jacket and tie, to offer Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales,” in a secure and richly colored performance. He ended the evening with glimpses into a purposeful and powerful conception of Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata, interrupted by yet another memory glitch.

Sullivan will repeat this program next month as the last required recital for his degree. The right combination of preparation and air conditioning should suffice.