"Intolerance" by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
"Africa Now!" at the Apollo Theater

Ian Hobson Paints Musical Colors with Debussy and Ravel at SubCulture

by Nick Stubblefield


When SubCulture announced in July 2015 that they were “re-structuring their business model” and cancelling the majority of their lineup, many faithful concert-goers fretted about losing this intimate, inviting venue for good. Luckily, over two years later, it’s still here - though indeed the business model has changed.  Now there are far fewer artists on the calendar, with more focus on residencies and concert series.

When I stopped in Wednesday night to hear pianist Ian Hobson perform part six of his eight-part concert series of Debussy and Ravel pieces for piano, I figured he must know his way around the instrument quite well. After all, the now highly-selective venue booked him for eight programs. And my hunch was correct: Hobson, a native Englishman, channeled every ounce of impressionistic beauty in selections from two of France’s beloved composers.

Hobson opened his set with a series of four Debussy works. Berceuse heroique entered like a slow funeral march, gradually building momentum until the climax. Valse and Mazurka are more sprightly numbers, so Hobson’s fingers lightly danced and frolicked across the keys, whereas the Nocturne was grander, darker, requiring a heavier hand.


Photo by Enid Farber for illinois.edu

Ravel’s well-known Miroirs was next. Notes cascade and crisscross throughout the work, and Hobson performed tricky, densely textured passages with fluidity and deeply sensitive dynamics. The work calls for some complex polyrhythms between left and right-hand, and Hobson handled them with such a graceful touch that the underlying rhythmic complexity never called attention to itself. Hobson’s clear mastery of scales and arpeggios, and his deftness with the sustain pedal culminated in a dream-like atmosphere, the very quality the composers surely intended to render — after all, they drew inspiration from nature and the popular impressionist art of the time.

Only a tiny percent of people have the form of synesthesia in which sound becomes color, but Hobson’s rendering of Debussy’s Preludes, Book I, had a colleague and me contemplating signing up to get tested for it. Hobson’s touch was delicate and clean, his chords and melodies well-balanced, and his dynamic switches were seamless — all of which together conjured shapes, images, and hard-hitting emotions, sometimes melancholy, sometimes playful, often ephemeral and difficult to articulate.

Few would disagree that Ravel and Debussy both composed beautiful music, but to hear them channeled live through an artist who seemed so deeply in touch with the emotional complexities of their works was a transcendent experience.

Hobson continues his residence at SubCulture on March 4th and March 18th. Tickets available here.